I was driving over the pass today, headed from one state to the next, from one grandson to the next, from one daughter to the next, doing that thing women have done ever since we could stand on our own two feet – helping.
It was a long drive and I was tired. As I told Pistol Pete this morning, “You wear me out.” To which he replied, “You wear me out, too, Ranny.”
Pistol Pete got a baby brother this week. He likes him very much, in very brief spurts, which is probably the best way to get used to any new person, if you think about it.
I left town at Pistol Pete’s naptime. He wasn’t happy about me leaving or about the nap. I told him I loved him to the moon and back and he replied, “I love you back and forth, Ranny,” which is something he said on a couple of other occasions over the week. As you might have figured out, Pistol Pete is an effusive talker. He has a big personality and he does everything with his whole heart, which if you think about it, is really the only right way to do anything.
I was thinking about all that and listening to the radio when I heard a story out of Fayetteville, North Carolina. I used to be an editorial writer for the FayObserver, one of the best jobs I ever had. I loved the staff I worked with and the product we produced and the community that read it.
The story was about an 81-year-old man who called 911 asking for help. He wasn’t hurt, wasn’t bleeding, he said. He just needed somebody to get him some groceries. He was hungry.
I looked up the story at the FayObserver.com the first chance I got. Seems Clarence Blackmon Jr. called the dispatcher simply because he didn’t have anyone else to call. He has been undergoing treatment for cancer and had returned home after six months of hospitalization.
Mr. Blackmon came home to an empty house with no food.
And no way to get any.
So he called the only help line he knew – 911.
God bless that dispatcher’s heart. She got Blackmon some groceries and even fixed him a meal. It’s a wonderful story, you can read all about it over at the FayObserver site.
But here are some facts that you may find troubling:
In the US, nearly 30% of the 40 million community-dwelling elderly live alone. About half of the community-dwelling oldest old (85 yr plus) live alone. About four fifths of elderly people living alone are women. Men are more likely to die before their wives, and widowed or divorced men are more likely to remarry than are widowed or divorced women.
The elderly who live alone are more likely to be poor, especially with advancing age. Many report feelings of loneliness (in 60% of those 75 and older) and social isolation. In those with health problems or sensory deficits, new or worsening symptoms may be unnoticed. Many have difficulty complying with prescribed treatment regimens. Because they have physical limitations and because eating is a social activity, some elderly people who live alone do not prepare full, balanced meals, making undernutrition a concern.
In other words, Mr. Blackmon is not alone in his isolation and lack of community. This is a growing problem in our rapidly aging society. (And Dear Forty & Thirty-years-old: If you are lucky enough, you will live to a ripe old age, too. So this is your problem, not just an old people’s problem).
We know how to build community. It’s in our DNA. We were created with a need to belong.
For our own good.
I lived in Fayetteville. I know it to be a community of good-hearted people. I was not at all surprised that dispatcher and those police officers went out and took care of Mr. Blackmon. I had three police cars show up once to take care of a chicken I found in the middle of the road. The dispatcher pulled through then, too. She took that chicken home and nursed it back to health.
But here’s the thing, where were Mr. Blackmon’s neighbors? Where was his local church? What about the hospital? Did anyone check when he went home that someone was there to help him?
Years ago, when I was growing up in that trailer in West Georgia, I used to care for a woman named Chris. She had some disease that kept her bed-ridden. Her bed was in the middle of the living room of her trailer home. The trailer barely looked lived in. Chris earned money by selling light bulbs over the phone. Her daughter worked at a strip club and would come by once a week to see after her mother. Otherwise, Chris was all alone. She could not have moved from her bed if her trailer had caught fire.
I fixed her food and helped care for her personal needs. It was a hard job for a girl of 12. But it taught me compassion. I learned at an early age that family is important, that community matters, that we have a responsibility to care for one another.
We were never meant to live life in a bubble.
Mr. Blackmon can testify, life in a bubble can be downright dangerous.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer University Press).