11/27/2014 08:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This Is What Sustains People In Need As Nuclear Families Spread Out

From a distance, the 350 pounds Jim Bowen packs into his thick, muscular frame appear menacing. A shaved skull and elongated Van Dyke beard edged with the first trimmings of grey only add to the suggestion that he must be a bouncer at an edgy Daytona Beach bar.

As Jim approached my wife's Aunt Annette, he pulled open the passenger door and reached in to extricate her from the passenger seat. She looked up at him, reached immediately for her inhaler and prepared herself. Sharp, relentlessly combative and attractive despite a series of medical misfortunes, Annette knows the routine. The long-ago Miss Otis Air Force Base turned world-roaming travel agent has been widowed for more years than she cares to count and, equally challenging, now requires daily living assistance thanks to a shattered hip too dangerous to replace.

Jim gently wedged his thick hands under her arms and waited for her to move her legs to the side before slowly lifting her from the car and carefully spinning her into a waiting wheelchair. It was my first trip to visit Aunt Annette since she lost her ability to live independently, a tough adjustment for such a strong-willed woman.

That Annette is accepting the adjustment is partially a testament to Jim. Through several years of physical turmoil that have turned even more troubling in recent months, Jim has been her protector, her friend, her handyman and, more recently, her escape from confinement.

In many ways, they are opposites:

• Jim dwarfs the petite Annette in physical stature.
• At 51, Jim is youthful and vigorous. A lifetime of battling Lupus never slowed 74-year-old Annette in the way recent challenges have confined her.
• Since moving from Upstate New York to the Atlantic Coast of Florida as a child, Jim has rarely departed the area other than during his six years of Air Force service. Annette enjoyed decades of world travel with Uncle Ed. She set off to Antarctica not long after his passing, never afraid of overseas adventure.

The unlikely relationship between Jim and Annette formed initially at the Moose Family Center, a lodge dedicated to raising money for the Mooseheart Child City outside of Chicago and Moosehaven retirement community near Jacksonville, Florida. A regular at the Moose Lodge who has taken on leadership roles at times, Jim worried when Annette hadn't been around for too many days.
One of Jim's checks found Annette in the midst of a serious medical emergency. In stubborn fashion typical for her lineage, Annette refused to allow an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Jim drove her instead. In the years since, he's taken on a substantial role for Annette's physical wellbeing, along with simply being her friend.

During the day, Jim toils at his single-man construction and handyman business. Several times each week, though, he turns into driver, bill payer, confidant, care provider and personal shopper (with coffee-flavored Haagen Dazs ice cream her clear priority based on my freezer check).

Annette's handful of blood relatives reside 800 or more miles away and are able to visit only infrequently, as are several other relatives connected through her departed husband. Her nuclear family is too small and spread out to provide the assistance that close-knit, extended families deliver in difficult times.

Through a series of challenges, Jim's concern and attention has helped save Annette's life and, just as importantly, her mental health. The men and women at Kist Assisted Living who rotate in to help Aunt Annette with her daily needs do incredible work (including, in small world fashion, the sister of a man my wife has worked with for more than a decade). Even so, their attention is split among multiple patients. Jim's visits are dedicated to her.

Jim doesn't need to do this. There's no family connection, no sense of religious obligation, no commitment to remuneration though Aunt Annette certainly tries to return his generosity when possible. He sacrifices some of his infrequent leisure time, a valuable asset for a single man, in order to take care of his friend Annette. He is gentle, patient and able to endure the routine needling from her that is traditional to family encounters. It turns out, he's also well prepared, having worked for several years at an assisted living center before the heartache of losing too many residents who became his friends weighed so heavily on him that he decided to pursue a new path.

As nuclear families shrink and spread out, it's relationships built on true friendship borne out of chance encounters that increasingly sustain people in times of need.

When I joined my wife and in-laws in a recent visit to Aunt Annette to spend time with her and share stories of times past, it was my first chance to meet Jim. It's reassuring to see in Jim a gentle giant of a man who cares and worries more frequently than we ever could from our distance.

Jim Bowen is a difference maker in this world, making life better one person at a time. It turns out that he's the antithesis of menacing. Thank you, Jim.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Dr. Colvin's Advice For Staying Active After 50