Friday, August 26, 2005

A Friend in Need

There is a very interesting article in today's New York Times about the growing number of Americans who live alone and have no family to help them in times of need.

Every time Grace McCabe is handed a form in a doctor's office asking for an emergency contact, the blank space makes her shiver.

It is such a simple question for anyone with a spouse, partner or children. But Ms. McCabe, 75, has always lived alone. Who would stand by her in a crisis? Who would be there for her in the worst of times?

These were once hypothetical questions. But now Ms. McCabe's slowly fading eyesight is almost gone. She has always had lots of friends but had never asked one to take responsibility for her, to answer the middle-of-the-night telephone call from the emergency room, say, or to pay her bills because she cannot write checks herself.

This would be just another article about people who have fallen through the cracks in society; but Jane Gross focuses on an unusual angle: the importance of friends for people who have no family connections.

Of all [Grace McCabe's] friends, she has fixed on one with a good heart, a steady hand under pressure and a talent for problem solving. So time and again, she writes "Charlotte Frank" in the blank space and lightens the moment by calling to say, "Charlotte, you're on another list."

When Ms. McCabe was knocked to the crosswalk by a reckless driver and suffered a concussion, Ms. Frank, 70 and herself single, stayed overnight on the living room couch. When Ms. McCabe could no longer see standard type, Ms. Frank got her a computer and set the font to its largest size so she could read the newspaper and order from catalogs.

"You find out there are good friends who become great friends," Ms. McCabe said. "Charlotte told me to 'grab on,' both literally and figuratively, and I did."
The growing number of single-person households - including the never-married, divorced and widowed - is evident in census reports. In 2003, nearly 27 percent of American households consisted of one person living alone, up from 18 percent in 1970, putting a premium on friendship, a relationship without the legal status or social standing of kin. And demographers warn that the graying of the baby boom generation will swell the ranks of single-person households, with illness and disability an inevitable corollary of old age.

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