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Rent-a-Family - The Latest Service Industry

AS a lifelong Floridian, Rita Bott has watched a steady stream of retirees leave families and friends in the North to begin a brave new life in the Sunbelt. At the same time, as part of her work with local community agencies, she has fielded an increasing number of long-distance calls from sons and daughters trying desperately, in absentia, to help retired parents celebrate a special occasion or find companions for a particular outing.

``Retired people don't really need a lot of material objects,'' Ms. Bott observed. ``It's the personal things that mean the most, but there's no way people in the North can provide them.''

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As one small way of meeting that need, Bott and two partners recently launched the Godmothers, a service designed to help people whose parents live in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area ``provide a family touch when you can't be there.''

One son, responding to a small ad the women placed in a New York newspaper, hired the Godmothers to escort his mother to Disney World in Orlando. A daughter asked them to take her mother to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and then to dinner.

Other far-flung children have commissioned the trio to deliver Easter baskets and birthday cakes to parents. (A birthday cake, complete with balloons and party noisemakers, is $60.)

Not so many years ago, the idea of hiring strangers - even strangers as warmhearted as the Godmothers - to honor an elderly father on his birthday or take a widowed mother to brunch on Mother's Day would have been unthinkable in many families.

Today, the existence of this service, and services like it, measures what relatives no longer can do - or will do - for relatives.

From paid child care (rent-a-parent) to this type of paid elder caring (rent-a-daughter), responsibilities that once would have been considered part of an unwritten family code - this is what a family does for its members - are now of necessity being turned into commercial transactions.

The phrases Bott and a partner, Sandra Soares, used during a breakfast interview to describe their services seem to extend the extended family as far as it can stretch. Mrs. Soares refers to herself as ``a substitute daughter.'' Bott calls the Godmothers ``surrogate family members - like having a relative down here.''

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Simulated families are hardly a new phenomenon. Big Brother and Big Sister organizations have long provided surrogate relatives for children and teens in need of companionship or guidance. College administrators describe their role as acting in loco parentis. Even large corporations project themselves in a fatherly image by referring to employees as ``members of the Acme family.''

But in an era of overextended two-career families, single-parent homes, and households split from coast to coast, the need for surrogate services doubtless will continue to grow. Hot lines, support groups, and counseling services for husbands, wives, and children: They all provide evidence that the family, once the refuge of last resort, often requires a haven for itself.

And the heated debate over federal involvement in child care is finally asking the question: What is the family's responsibility for itself? What is the role of the government - as well as the private sector - in meeting the needs of families?

In loco parentis is a term spreading out to include institutions and agencies not dreamed of as family surrogates in simpler times. But more than just practical services are desired. An emotional hunger is making demands that no kindness from strangers can fully satisfy. Bott notes that recipients of the Godmothers' services ``have a tendency to talk to us like their daughters.''

Soares agrees: ``The ideal situation is to be surrounded by your family. But that isn't the way it works anymore.''

With an air of summing up, Bott concludes: ``In today's world, you find it more and more difficult to get personal attention anywhere. There's always going to be a market for personal concern.''

This is a blunt statement of what others may phrase more delicately. But the fact cannot easily be glossed over: Loneliness is becoming one of the most common and pervasive American conditions, requiring all the large and small consolations the lonely can claim - right down to self-appointed godmothers.

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