Recently, there were two chilling news reports of older women, one who had been living in New York and another in South Carolina, who died alone in their homes---without anyone knowing. Hearing the circumstances, I couldn't help but wonder whether their lives had been cut short because they had no friends to buoy their spirits or to help them manage their lives. A 10-year study of people over the age of 70 in Australia suggests that this might be the case. The researchers found that friends are more important than family in conferring longevity, and that people with an extensive network of good friends outlive those with the fewest friends by 22 percent.
These are the two stories in brief: Jane Wild, a 78-year-old retired schoolteacher, was found dead on February 4th in a bathroom on the second floor of her home in Chappaqua, New York, an upscale hamlet of 6500 households. Describing her as a recluse, the police thought she might have been dead for at least six months when they found her. Wild's mailbox was stuffed and her utilities had already been turned off. But no one knew she had died until her attorney tried to reach her, unsuccessfully, and notified the police. "It's just sad she died by herself and that nobody even missed her enough to call about checking on her," said Detective Sgt. James Wilson of the New Castle Police who are still searching for next of kin.
This week, some 800 miles away, Juanita Goggins, 75, also a former schoolteacher, who earned the distinction of becoming the first black woman elected to the South Carolina Legislature in 1974, was found frozen to death at home. Born to sharecroppers, Goggins also became the first black female to be appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Her landlord had noticed that the lights in her house, which was only four miles from the State capitol, hadn't been turned on for a couple of weeks. She, too, was described as a loner. Her son said that his mother suffered from an undiagnosed mental disorder for the last decade of her life and refused any help from family or neighbors. Neither Wild nor Goggins appear to have been indigent.
Unfortunately, many older people lead isolated lives for a variety of reasons: physical, emotional, and situational. One report estimated that as many as two million of the nine million Americans over the age of 65 who live alone say they have no one to turn to for help. There are no simple answers and, hopefully, more will be learned about the lives and deaths of these two women. Yet, we often don't take notice of the person who lives alone in the apartment or house next door. It's natural to feel awkward about intruding into someone else's space but perhaps stories like this will inspire individuals and communities to think twice.
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Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Her new book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, was recently published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at PsychologyToday.com.