“Who’s your next of kin?” 

It’s a simple and routine question, isn’t it? And yet these five words can generate a wide range of emotions, depending upon what else is happening in your life.

Certainly, if you are widowed or divorced – or perhaps have always been single but your parents are now dead – it’s a query that can puncture your sense of well-being and plunge you into an unwanted mood. Why? Probably, because it underlines, in front of someone else, that you’re alone.  

The question may also be uncomfortable for you if you have a partner with dementia or some other terminal illness – because it reminds you, painfully, that your loved one can no longer take responsibility for you.  

When you’re in a steady, loving relationship you trot out the name of your next of kin without thinking. Secure in your coupledom, you know who it is and take it as much for granted as knowing who you’re spending Sunday with, or who will accompany you on your next holiday, or to a friend’s party.   

Of course, most of us who are single are lucky enough to have friends with whom to share activities. And we may well have a supportive family too. I, for example, am blessed with two brothers, a niece and two stepsons.

So, I have several individuals whose names I can supply as emergency contacts in my passport and other legal documents. 

But it’s the sudden and unexpected questions about next of kin that can feel emotional – such as when we’re at the doctor, dentist or optician.

Out of the blue, someone may say that they’re putting drops in your eyes, and therefore you mustn’t drive home. Or suggest that you could be a bit shaky after some procedure or other and ask who they should phone on your behalf to come and get you.  

I’m sure this happens to people of all ages, but it somehow seems more worrying as we get older and is more frequent too. 

When it crops up, if – like me – your official emergency contacts live over a hundred miles from you, it can throw you into confusion. It’s not that you don’t have anyone you can call on, but rather that it’s not obvious who that person should be.   

When this happened to me recently, I realised that I was guilty of never thinking ahead in these situations and, reluctantly, decided that it’s time I did. 

Sometimes a real crisis can occur. Again, I don’t think many of us give this any thought to unexpected scenarios of this nature. But it became a reality a few weeks ago for a close friend of mine. 

He was working in the north of England when suddenly he became seriously ill and ended up in the high-dependency unit of an unfamiliar hospital.

We discussed it after he got home, and he told me that when asked for his next of kin he really couldn’t think who to choose. He has no siblings, and said he’d never really thought about the next of kin situation since his parents had died. 

This is a man with masses of friends, but he was so poorly and weak that he found it hard to make a decision. Also, part of him didn’t want to trouble all his mates back in Norfolk.  

There was a further complication in that during the emergency his phone charger was mislaid and before long his mobile died on him.

Like most of us, he had never actually committed to memory any telephone numbers or emails of his social contacts. So, he was cut off from his network of support till someone eventually loaned him a charger.  

What happened to him could happen to any of us. And it has made me recognise that those of us who live alone ought to prepare 
for such eventualities. 

For a start, it would be a good idea if we all carried a small card with a couple of contacts and their details in our wallets rather than totally rely on our phones. 

I also think we must accept that though we consider ourselves independent, we’re going to need assistance from time to time and that if we don’t have family close by, we should put other support in place. 

I plan to set up a WhatsApp group of other single friends and discuss with them how we can manage medical appointments better and know who to ask when we need someone to accompany us.  

Finally, let’s remember: 

•    It’s not pitiful or pathetic to be single and live alone, or to feel unable to provide a quick answer to the “next of kin” question.

•    Our family need to know if and when we need help with our health, even if they’re too far away to offer it themselves. Most close relatives want to be kept in the loop.  

•    We may hate bothering others but sometimes we’re going to have to. Just ask yourself if you would help out if someone needed you. I’m sure you would.