Widowville, U.S.A.

US News, September 11, 2000

In Grant City, Mo., boarded-up buildings dot the town square. The drugstore, hardware store, and even the clothing store are all closed. The only thing still booming? The widow business.

Grant City is the seat of Worth County, which turns out to be the county with the nation's highest proportion of widows, according to a calculation done by the U.S. Census Bureau especially for U.S. News. Nearly 1 of every 6 residents–16.3 percent–is a widow, making this small rural county on the Iowa border a foreteller of what a "nation of widows" might look like.
For one thing, economies will shift to care for an aging population. Last year, the town was shattered when its largest employer, a baseball-cap factory, closed. But widows bring in more money than the caps did, says Ronald Rauch of the regional Area Agency on Aging. Worth County receives more in government transfer payments–mostly from Social Security and Medicare–than its residents make in wages and salaries, he says.

Grant City, population 886, has two nursing homes, two funeral homes, and a tombstone maker. Three years ago, the county had no doctors; now it has two young physicians, attracted in large part by the promise of steady work attending to the county's widows. Dr. Nimesh Panchigar, a native of India, moved into the old doctor's office on the square, inheriting 1950s-era examining tables. During a residency in New York City, at a hospital that saw more patients in one day than Grant City has residents, Panchigar was trained to limit the questions he asked patients. But, here, medicine is personal. "You have to solve the social issues," says Panchigar. "The medical issues, any doctor can solve." One widow, for example, came with complaints of various illnesses. But what she really needed was someone to talk to. Panchigar now schedules a weekly 20-minute visit–free of charge.
Mortgage row. A few widows, like Berniece Findley, 81, have stayed on their farms, even decades after their husbands passed away. "As you go up and down the road here, it looks like I live at the end of mortgage row," she says. Findley and her friend Neva Waldeier, 90–both of whom lost their husbands in 1970–turned their farm work over to their sons. Most widows sell and move into town. 

And rely on the kindness of neighbors: Men at the First Assembly of God reroof widows' homes. And at the Old Towne Café–where yellowed newspaper clips from World War II sit under the glass tops of tables ("Truman Alderson Lost Off Africa")–waitresses telephone to check on widows who fail to show up for their regular meals. Of course, widows help out, too. "Widows volunteer on every community board and in the churches," says Debbie Roach, a city councilwoman. Worth County even passed a "senior tax" that raises money for home-delivered meals and housecleaning.

At the Worth County Senior Center, which moved into a vacant store on the town square, widows come to visit, to quilt, or to get their blood pressure checked. A dozen women playing bingo recall growing up without running water, heat, or even electricity. They speak of their husbands' early deaths, caused, they say, by hard farm work, use of now banned pesticides and cigarettes; of children who left town looking for jobs. Says 89-year-old Velda Johnson: "We farm women are tough old birds."