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Image:Lucy Whitworth
Sarah Rice  /  Sarah Rice for msnbc.com
After Lucy Whitworth, now 70, was diagnosed with breast cancer, 49 friends came together to help care for her during her year of treatment.
TODAY contributor
updated 8/29/2011 8:12:32 AM ET 2011-08-29T12:12:32

Perhaps no one feels more alone than when being wheeled into the operating room, but for many, that feeling continues on because there’s no one to provide care and support at home afterward.

Then there’s Lucy Whitworth. Whitworth lives alone and 800 miles from her nearest relative, but after she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, she endured surgery and chemo secure in the knowledge that she would never want for companionship or a cooked meal or a clean house during her recovery.

“Lucy’s Angels” — 49 friends who’d signed up to help care for her, were “literally fighting over me” for more than a year, Whitworth, now 70, recalls. “There weren’t enough tasks for that many people.”

These "angels" met with Whitworth before the day of her surgery to talk about her post-op needs. They took it from there, allowing Whitworth to focus on healing instead of repeatedly asking for favors.

In the past, extended and immediate family members shouldered much of the load when someone became seriously ill. That’s changed as marriage rates declined and families shrunk. More than 31 million Americans — representing more than a quarter of U.S. households — live alone, according to the 2010 Census. That’s up about 6.5 million since 1995. On top of that, the U.S. population is getting older.

'What if something happens to me?'
“There are some people living alone who always have this fear in the back of their mind: What if something happens to me?” says social psychologist Bella DePaulo, author of the book "Singlism" and a visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Because friends aren’t obligated to help in the way that, say, a spouse is, single people often worry 'I don’t have anyone.’”

Emergency room physician Thomas Amoroso has even admitted patients to the hospital and ordered extra diagnostic testing because they have no one to keep an eye on them at home.

“A lot of times the decision of whether to admit or discharge home is straight-forward,” says Amoroso, who practices at Tufts Health Plan in Medford, Mass., and serves on the board of the Alternatives to Marriage Project. “But probably in an equal number of cases, it’s not so obvious. If you have no support at home, it changes the dynamic of that decision.”

Whitworth has never been married nor had children. But she’s lived in Sebastopol, Calif., since 1985 and has made cultivating friendships a high priority, whether they be with women in a lesbian retirees group she organized or fellow square dance aficionados.

“I don’t have a big extended family," she says. "Years ago, it became very clear that my family was my friends.”

One of those friends is Tricia Hoffman, 64, who also lives in Sebastopol. Hoffman is the first to admit she’s no cook, but she found there were plenty of other ways to help Whitworth during her recovery. She could take her to the doctor, go grocery shopping or simply keep her company.

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Hoffman, a retired massage therapist, has been divorced for more than 30 years, and her two children live hundreds of miles away in Los Angeles. “I really am dependent on my extended network of friends,” says Hoffman, who’s also been involved in care circles for two other friends, one who had cancer and one who had hip replacement surgery.

You don’t need dozens of best friends to organize a successful care group, though, Whitworth notes. For example, she says, you might want to think about “who are the people you’ve worked with who are special in your life?”

Her friends actually followed a template laid out in a 1995 book called “Share the Care.”

Most of the dozen members of the original caring circle that gave rise to the book didn’t know each other before gathering to help their mutual friend Susan, a single mother with cancer whose therapist had suggested she ask for help, author Sheila Warnock recalls.

“For 3 ½ years we worked together, and our little group of friends became sisters,” Warnock says. ‘’When she died, we had a closing meeting. We felt good about what we had done.”

Soon after, another woman asked Warnock if she could help her organize a similar group. That’s when Warnock and her friend Cappy Capossela decided to write a book about the concept.

“We knew we had to get it down on paper so that other people wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time,” says Warnock, who describes herself as a senior but declined to give her age. Warnock eventually had to spearhead a caring group for Capossela in 2002 after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that eventually proved fatal.

Image: Lucy Whitworth, left, and Nancy Rose
Sarah Rice for msnbc.com
Lucy Whitworth, left, and Nancy Rose share a laugh at Rose's Sebastopol, Ca. home. Whitworth helped Rose during her recovery from hip surgery, and the two became good friends.

In Whitworth’s case, what goes around comes around. Before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had participated in the groups for seven sick friends and is now involved in helping out three more. In total, maybe six or seven of the 10 have lived alone.

Whitworth first learned about Share the Care years ago through the friend of a friend with breast cancer. Back then, she and the other members of her friend’s care group used a phone tree to organize it and share information. But Whitworth’s most recent groups turned to a free website, lotsahelpinghands.com, for scheduling.

“We created this service to answer the question: What can I do to help?” says Lotsa Helping Hands spokeswoman Brooks Kenny. “Not everybody has the means to drop off a meal five days a week.”

Kenny says more than half a million people have participated in 50,000 Lotsa Helping Hands communities.

“There were times when I just needed somebody to be here because I was really sick,” says Whitworth. “What I felt was completely held. It’s that place of being able to turn it over and allow people to do things for you. For some people, it’s really, really difficult.”

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