Altruistic Ants and Poor, Childless Humans Share Depressing Commonality of Dying Alone

Josh Clark

I was researching an article from the BBC about a curious phenomenon, ants leaving their colonies when they're nearing death. Two German researchers infected one lab-raised ant colony with a fatal fungus and gassed another with CO2 (artificially decreasing the ants' lifespan, as the article euphemistically put it). The majority of the ants that died from the fungal infection or who succumbed to the artificially reduced lifespan gassing left their colonies. The researchers concluded that the ants were indeed presenting behavior of something generally considered to be exclusive to higher mammals -- altruism. By going off to die alone, the infected ants were decreasing the possibility of transferring their disease to others.

I can't avoid envisioning a sick ant, cresting the top of the mound for the last time, wandering down the slope to go off to die by its lonesome. In the German study, some ants made their way to distant foraging areas, dying alone as they carried out the familiar task of searching for food.

One can draw an odd comparison between ants dying alone and humans dying alone. Both ants and humans are social creatures; both depend on social structure for survival; both have stratified classes. When an ant goes off to die alone, it's a heroic act of altrusim for the greater good of the society. When a human dies alone, it's tragic, it represents a loss of community within the society.

Take Jorge Chambe, an Australian retiree. Mr. Chambe lived alone in public housing in a suburb of Sydney and in early 2007, he died alone in his apartment. About 12 months later, a neighbor realized she hadn't seen Mr. Chambe in awhile. His mailbox was filled beyond capacity and she grew worried. The cops and the fire department broke in and found Mr. Chambe's body. He lay, like a dead cat on the side of the road, decomposing on the floor.

News of Mr. Chambe's unnoticed death was too depressing to be ignored and as a result, Australia began new initiatives to tightening community bonds with the country's elderly population.

The depressing news of old people dying alone is poised to not only continue, but increase here the the developed world. Society has a safety net to guard against people dying alone: children. When you die your kids are kind of expected to hold your hand and listen to you ramble, at least in the hopes of finding out where you buried your coffee cans of money. Not everyone has kids, however. A full 19 percent of women born in the 1950s did not have children, and as a result are at increased risk of a fate similar to Jorge Chambe's. Those without money are even more at risk, as hospice care and nursing homes provide a similar function for childless or family-less elderly.

As elderly people retire and enter physical decline, they lose more of their social network. Jorge Chambe didn't take any radical or unusual steps toward the end he met; he simply had no family, no money and spent an increasing amount of time alone. It doesn't take much to die alone. It really only takes no one caring about you and that's dismayingly easy to come by.

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