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Toronto woman's desperate attempt to stay alive in freezing temperatures

In the snowy streets of a Scarborough, Ont. neighbourhood, Judy Tak Fong Lam Chiu left a chilling trail that led to her frozen body.

Her winter coat and glasses were discarded, a symptom of the dementia that clouded her mind, while fingernail marks on the screen door of a house and on a parked car demonstrated her desperate attempt to stay alive as the temperatures dipped as low as -20 C early Monday morning.

The body of the 66-year-old woman was discovered on a sidewalk on Kennaley Crescent around 5:30 a.m., just 300 metres from her home on Cleadon Road in the city's northeast.

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According to police, her husband, 60-year-old Chiu Wing Tung, noticed that she was no longer in bed around 2 a.m., but assumed she had gone downstairs to sleep on the sofa. When he awoke again an hour later, he realized she had disappeared, and he began driving around the neighbourhood looking for her. He finally called police around 4:45 a.m.

She was eventually found by a newspaper carrier, her body so cold that paramedics were unable to revive her.

She was pronounced dead in hospital at 7:05 a.m., but may have survived, police say, if some of the neighbours who heard her screams for help around 2 a.m. had intervened or called 911. One resident even looked outside and noticed someone stumbling around in the dark and cold, said Sergeant David Dubé, and then went back to bed.

"It's a circumstance where we should have been notified to attend," Sgt. Dubé said. "As a community, we have an obligation to look after each other. That's what it's about."

Some 500,000 Canadians live with dementia, and their relatives live with the fear that they may just wander away.

Ms. Chiu's neighbourhood is populated with a mix of long-time residents and recent immigrants, residing in unassuming, attached brick homes. Many, like her, have a Chinese background.

But few of her neighbours reported speaking with the couple, and most did not know her name. Some said she would rarely leave the immediate area around her house, and she would often walk back and forth in front of her driveway, or pace to the edge of the curb.

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"There seemed to be some evidence of illness, but also some evidence of awareness," said neighbour Courtney Fisher, who lives two doors down from the couple.

George Cheang, a 22-year-old York University business student who lives on Kennaley Crescent, awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of screaming, but assumed it was neighbours arguing or returning home from a party, and stayed in bed. He would have acted differently if he had he known what was happening, he said, and insisted that most neighbours on the quiet street are friendly, say hello and help each other out.

"The way I see it is, it happened on my street. It could have happened on your street," said Mr. Cheang, who has lived with his parents in the neighbourhood since they moved from Macau 10 years ago. "I'm not worried about people judging me. I'm more worried about what happened to the woman on the street."

Other residents said they believed people should have helped, but may have been too fearful to intervene. "You don't know who's going to be there when you open the door," said Lucy Abdelmaseeh, who lives about half a block down from where the woman was found, but said she didn't hear anything.

The elderly woman would often stand alone at her doorway, staring at the street for hours, said Jian Cao, who lives across the street. He said the couple rarely had visitors, and he was unsure whether they had any other family living in the city.

Domenico Capotorto, 60, lives two houses over from the elderly couple, and said Ms. Chiu didn't appear to speak English. Property records show the couple have owned the house since 1989.

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"She was a nice lady. I would see her walking in front of the house and say hi, but that was it," he said.

He said he wasn't aware of ever seeing the woman looking lost or confused, but said that he had heard she had gotten lost last year and that police had become involved. Eventually, he said, she was found wandering at a nearby shopping mall.

Mr. Fisher believes his neighbours would have helped Ms. Chiu, had they known what was happening, and may simply have not heard her cries for help. "I don't like to believe that people heard her and did nothing."

With a report from Stephanie Chambers

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Ann Hui is the national food reporter at The Globe and Mail. Previously, she worked as a national reporter and homepage editor for and an online editor in News. More

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