Good Samaritans to those who live alone

Among the headlines filling newspapers and airwaves this month, some of the saddest and most shocking have come from France. The extended heat wave that sent temperatures soaring above 100 degrees F. is being blamed for an estimated 10,000 deaths. Most of the victims were older people, many of them living alone.

As the magnitude of the tragedy sinks in - one doctor in France calls it a humanitarian catastrophe - the French and others around the world are asking: How could this happen? French officials blame a lack of air conditioning in apartments, houses, and hotels. They also note that many families had gone away on August vacations, leaving older relatives at home.

The director of the largest funeral-home chain in France cites another culprit: anonymity. "Among the elderly, there's a lot of anonymity," he told The New York Times. "Paris is a city with a lot of anonymity."

Many cities around the world could fit that description. From urban apartment dwellers to homeowners in leafy suburbs, the frequent lament in all age groups is: We don't know our neighbors.

In the United States, nearly 10 million people over 65 live alone. Among women over 75, half live alone. For those with regular contact with family and friends, living independently does not pose problems. Yet social isolation becomes more acute among those who no longer work, or whose resources and transportation are limited. Some may simply be too proud or too shy to ask for help.

For many people, this is a wondrous Age of Connection. E-mail and cellphones enable families and friends who are separated by miles or continents to stay in touch, anytime, everywhere. How ironic that for others it is an Age of Disconnection. Jeanne Phillips, who writes the Dear Abby column, finds loneliness a recurring theme in her mail.

As the French continue the sorrowful task of arranging funerals and burying the dead, their national tragedy could serve as a catalyst to begin conversations around the world, seeking creative ways to connect people of all ages in time of need. Call them antidotes to anonymity.

In one citywide example in Taiwan during the SARS crisis, the mayor of Taipei set up emergency watches for 4,300 older people who live alone. A phone call to the fire department connected them with help if they needed it.

And then there are the smaller, more personal solutions. Kelly Murphy is a staff member at Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly in Boston, an international volunteer organization whose mission is to relieve isolation and loneliness among older people. Ninety-five percent of those they serve live alone.

Reaching out, Mr. Murphy says, can take many forms. "It might be neighbors letting their elderly neighbors know, 'Here's my name and number. We don't need to be friends or best buddies, but I'm here if you need me.' It can also involve church members asking each other, "Is there anybody in our congregation who might be alone and doesn't have friends?"

Heat waves represent only one challenge. During last year's cold, snowy winter in New England, Murphy's volunteers kept an eye on many older residents.

And during the long hours of the massive blackout in the Northeast and Midwest this month, how many of the 50 million Americans and Canadians left in the dark were older people, isolated and anonymous, coping alone?

Independence can be a prized possession. But a measure of dependence has its comforting rewards, too.

The old phone company slogan, "Reach out and touch someone," can take on new meaning if good Samaritans ask acquaintances and strangers, "What do you need, and how can we help?" followed by the reassuring words, "You're not alone."

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