Mission grows to help those living alone

Every weekday morning at 6:45, a silver car pulls into the driveway of a pristine Colonial a few doors from us. The driver, dressed in a white shirt and tie, sprints up the steps to the front door and lets himself in. This is the house where he grew up and where his widowed mother still lives. The two visit briefly, then he returns to his car at 7:00 and heads to work.

Mission accomplished.

For him, these daily stops offer reassurance that all is well with his mother, who is nearing 90. For her, they provide a way to maintain her independence and stay in the house that has been her home for four decades. On weekends, her family's visits last longer and include outings for errands and pleasure.

It's the kind of caring attention Americans will need in abundance in coming years as the ranks of older people living alone continue to grow. Already, among those over 85 – the fastest-growing age group in the country – 52 percent of women and 29 percent of men live alone.

For me, the visits by our neighbor's son carry added poignancy in the wake of California's heat wave last month. The majority of fatalities attributed to the scorching temperatures were older residents living alone in homes without air conditioning. Although aid workers went door to door in certain areas, they arrived too late in some cases.

How different the scenario could have been if concerned friends or relatives had been able to check on them earlier.

Similarly, nearly half of those who did not survive hurricane Katrina were over 75. Older evacuees have also faced the greatest challenges since then.

Ageism takes many forms. One is neglect. Retirees are often among the most invisible members of society.

So invisible, in fact, that most rescue and recovery plans for major disasters seldom mention older people, according to Paul Kleyman, editor of Age Beat, a newsletter for journalists.

Surely that will change. As the one-year anniversary of Katrina approaches this month, government officials and advocates for the elderly are learning lessons from the tragedy that will help to protect older people during future emergencies.

It isn't just disaster preparedness that will benefit by focusing a spotlight on senior residents. Such discussions are ultimately not morbid but life-affirming as officials work to preserve not only safety but also independence and dignity.

A popular media topic these days involves looking at ways in which baby boomers will reinvent retirement, bringing new energy, new purpose, and new combinations of work and play to the later years.

It's a fascinating and important subject. But it tells only part of the story of 21st-century retirement. The other essential chapter to consider will involve phase two of retirement, when baby boomers reach the age of my neighbor, perhaps living alone, as she does. They, too, may be eager to see a familiar car pull into the driveway, hear a friendly voice on the phone, and receive small acts of kindness – a ride to the supermarket or bank, perhaps, or reassurance that a relative or neighbor will check on them in a storm or emergency.

Whatever their situation, some older people living alone may be too proud – or too shy – to ask for a helping hand. Others simply might not know anyone to call in a moment of need. Yet as a hedge against loneliness and a guard against possible danger, the task for families, cities, and volunteer groups will involve finding creative ways to offer help.

As longevity increases, the rewarding challenge will be this: how to keep a generation that prizes independence connected and involved, avoiding isolation and invisibility. That will include encouraging those in younger generations to follow the lead of people like our neighbor's son. As one small part of that effort, the old phone company slogan – "Reach out and touch someone" – could be dusted off and updated to read, "Reach out and help someone."

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