When I arrived at my new apartment complex, I noticed several signs posted on the bulletin board of the clubhouse. One of them caught my eye. It read, “Free Help.” The page was filled with possible kinds of help this person was offering, mainly in the area of tech assistance, but ranging into other areas such as fixing furniture and appliances. It had a man’s name and phone number at the bottom. Fresh from the “real” world of financial gain and competition, I found myself wondering what the “catch” might be. Perhaps he just wanted to meet people, or it could be a clever business scheme. After the first sample of free assistance, he could present the hourly bill for the next service. One could imagine other, more malicious motives, but my mind doesn’t normally go there.
A month or so later, I met the gentleman. I had seen him many times around the complex, helping out at the food bank and engaging in friendly conversation with other residents. There was no catch. He just wanted to help. I found out that this kind of neighborly service happens daily, in many ways. One woman helps her low-vision neighbor select groceries. Another helps friends navigate the social service system. A man introduces himself, saying “I help people lift things.” As one neighbor put it, “We are all in the same boat.”
Some years ago I went camping with a friend. He decided to take a walk and I held back an impulse to remind him to take his jacket. This was the residue of many years as a wife and mother. I thought, “No, that’s not appropriate. He’s an adult and he can take care of himself.” Later, as I sat by myself in the shade of an oak tree, I thought about my impulse to help and the equally unthinking, culturally derived decision not to say anything. I realized a spouse or partner would have mentioned the jacket. In family groups, we take care of each other. They say married folks, at least married men, live longer. These simple acts of caring must be part of the reason.
As we get older, we need each other more, not less. And yet many of us end up living alone. Baby boomers, forever hopeful that there is a better situation out there somewhere, end relationships at any age. Among other demographic situations originating with our age group, I predict there will be a greater number of single seniors in their sixties and seventies. Previous generations, who may also have divorced and remarried, tended to stay partnered as they got older. Baby boomers may not follow that pattern. A lot of us will grow old single. We need to develop new habits and institutions to provide ourselves the same life-giving edge enjoyed by our married cohorts. We need to look out for one another.