Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=214660
Story Retrieval Date: 12/6/2013 7:12:58 AM CST
Mary Alford is the type of neighbor you would want on your block. She’s quiet and sometimes grows tomato plants in her yard. But, realize, she’s tough.
Years ago, drug dealers moved next door to her home on Chicago's far South Side. Mary said she confronted them and was the reason they soon relocated.
At 86, she’s a feisty, petite woman. And except for the short time when her doctor prescribed steroids, she’s never weighed more than 101 pounds.
She’s resilient too. Born the oldest girl of 12 brothers and sisters, she’s one among four remaining siblings.
And for the most part, she’s happy. After selling her second house to her niece, family lives right next door to her, on the opposite side from where the drug dealers moved. But even though her kin is so close, she’ll tell you any day that her two cats are just as much like family.
They used to have names, but these days Mary doesn’t remember them so she distinguishes them by the color of their collars.
“Cooommee here,” she called as she picked up Blue Collar in the living room. Pink Collar is hiding underneath covers in Mary’s bedroom. She’s a scaredy cat, but it’s picture time and they pose for the camera.
You can’t tell by her smile, but Mary is a member of a growing community— widowers who, after the death of their spouses, choose to live alone.
After battling liver and lung cancer, Mary’s husband, Freddie, died in 1984. Though they both knew his fate, it was never discussed at home.
Throughout their 24 years of marriage, Freddie managed the majority of their household finances. But, he made sure Mary could take care of herself, and their house, upon his death. They didn’t have any children.
“He would always take care of my family,” she said of Freddie, who was 10 years her junior. “He made sure me and my family were okay.”
In 2010, nearly three-quarters of women age 85 and over were widowed compared to 35 percent of men, according to a 2012 report by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics.
According to the report —which divided men and women into the following age groups: 65-74, 74-84 and 85 and over— the age at which women are forced into widowhood rises dramatically as they age.
At 65 years old, women are three times as likely as their same-age male counterparts to be widowed. And, in contrast to men, older women were twice as likely to live alone.
Racially, non-Hispanic white women and Black women were most likely to live alone, as opposed to living with other relatives, non-relatives or a new spouse, the report notes.
Older women are usually more content with taking care of their own needs after the death of a spouse, said Nikki Lively, a staff therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. Though Lively has never met Alford, she has counseled many clients in similar situations.
The decision to live alone stems more from generational trends than racial disparity, she said.
“In non-Hispanic white women, there is a trend where families live very far apart. They may be emotionally connected, but live in different parts of the country,” she said.
In African-American families, older women are matriarchs, who expect relatives to visit but don’t always desire to live with other people, she said.
They don’t necessarily seek out dating and remarriage.
“Older women are tired and don’t want to have to take care of somebody else. This is how they see a marriage,” Lively said.
Devotion to a deceased spouse may keep many single as well.
For nearly three decades, Mary has been one of these women. She’s dated other men, but nothing serious. And no matter their efforts, no man’s affections would overwrite her love for Freddie. Even, after all these years.
“You know what you got, you don’t know what you’re gonna get,” Mary said. “I know it would have been hard to find someone as good as Freddie was. I don’t want none of them fools.”
Though she lives alone, Mary’s house was once filled with other voices. She shared her home with a nephew and her younger sister, Ursula Mills, or “Nadie” as the family calls her. Nadie is the second oldest girl in the family.
Nadie moved in two years after Freddie’s death, but left in 2002 after she inherited a two-flat on Chicago’s South Side from her godmother. She and Nadie still talk twice a day, Mary said happily.
But a few years ago, Mary slipped into depression. For two years, she said she didn’t feel like living anymore.
It didn’t stem from years of repressed emotion over Freddie’s death, she said.
And it definitely wasn’t because she desired a companion, either.
In her early 80s, Mary said she began to feel unwanted by her family —“thrown away,” she called it.
Even while relishing their independence, older women still go through various levels of loneliness, Lively said.
While the severity and timespan depends on the individual, living alone can increase feelings of depression. It can also hinder, or make harder, an older adult’s ability to reconnect with younger family members, she said.
“If a person is living alone and trying to find new ways to relate to family, they have to make a lot of effort. It takes so much work that people just accept it. Being used to living alone can be like a habit, where it’s easier if you don’t have to deal with people,” she said.
Fixed ideas about family members can also prevent relatives, young or old, from spending time together. It all comes down to accepting the new phases of life, she said.
And, acceptance is exactly what Mary said freed her from her depression.
One resolution that helped her through was realizing she was not alone, after all. Mary learned that one of her neighbors, Alice Coleman, was living contently as a widow until her death this year.
“She was a wonderful person,” she said of Coleman, who was 90 years old when she died.
For now, Mary enjoys her cats and the calls and visits from Nadie and Nadie’s children and grandchildren. She warmly accepts the occasional visits from the younger kids and adults, and patiently waits for summer. That’s when she’ll sit on her porch again and watch over the neighborhood—and that’s when she’ll see everyone the most.
“When God made me, he broke the mold. So, I said so what. I’m okay now,” she said.