September 3, 2005


Effects of aging harder on singles without next of kin

A story published today in the Houston chronicle observes that 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 McCabe, a 75 year-old New Yorker, has always lived alone. Who could she rely on in a crisis? Who would be there for her in the worst of times?

These were once hypothetical questions. Now 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.

Of all her 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."

"You find out there are good friends who become great friends," McCabe said.

"Charlotte told me to 'grab on,' both literally and figuratively, and I did."

There is no way to calculate how many Americans of all ages living alone happen to be sick or disabled, but hospital discharge planners and home health care agencies say they are serving more single people who have no obvious person to look after them.

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 U.S. 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 as baby boomers gray, the ranks of single-person households will swell, with illness and disability an inevitable corollary of age.