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.
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.
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