How many of us are growing older alone? How many of us are concerned over aging solo, with family members — if we have them at all — living at too great a distance to be of use, emotionally or logistically?
Naturally, there are periods of time when we navigate our lives as singles, and we do so beyond the stage of starry-eyed and fresh-faced enthusiasm. For example, we may find ourselves going it alone following the death of a spouse or divorce. We may spend a few years on our own as a result, then pair up again or, depending on circumstances, move in with family.
But what about those who don’t?
Some feel security in the institution of marriage. After all, it’s the most revered of our commitments and offers public recognition of our status as a couple.
However, some of us who have been through divorce understand that marriages can easily unravel and dissolve. Consequently, our notions of “permanence” are irrevocably changed. Nonetheless, we may feel stability in our relationships, even without the sanction of legal marriage although, having lived through the breakup of domestic life once (or possibly more), we experience a different reality when considering life as a couple. And likewise, when pondering life on our own.
Life on Your Own. REALLY on Your Own.
A recent comment from a reader encourages me to revisit the issue of living alone, and being alone. These are topics that I have touched on from time to time, in terms of marital options as well as circumstances.
… I lost both my parents 4 years ago and this year, at age 50, my husband left me for another woman. We had no children. Additionally, I’m an only child.
While I’ve always been pretty independent, the complete lack of immediate family has left me at times frightened in ways I never could have imagined. I cope by trying as hard as I can to rebuild a family-like structure with friends old and new, and to live in the moment whenever possible. But there’s no getting around the fact my life – and my perspective – is forever changed. The loneliness can be overwhelming and so difficult to express to well-meaning friends. My only hope is to work through it and hope the pain lessens over time.
Can’t we empathize?
I sure can.
Of course, many of us live alone and like it; I am one of them, though I live with someone at present. (Believe me, the adjustments have been many, and are ongoing.) Yet I also face a likelihood that I will be an older woman alone at some future point – given that I’ve never remarried, my family is tiny, and I am an “older” mother of sons.
Like most women, I will have fewer economic resources than my ex to sustain a decent life, fewer resources than male friends, fewer resources than married friends. And that doesn’t begin to address the issues of physical or emotional well-being.
Interpreting Data Through a Personal Lens
The Huffington Post addresses the issue of aging women living alone in a positive light, and has this to say:
Whether by choice or chance, the number of older women living alone is increasing. In fact, according to the Administration on Aging, 37% of women in the U.S. over 65 live by themselves. More importantly, the majority of these women are happy living alone and wouldn’t want to live any other way.
Incidentally, looking at the marital status of our aging population, the Administration for Community Living tells us:
… In 2013, older men were much more likely to be married than older women–71% of men, 45% of women… There were more than three times as many widows (8.7 million) as widowers (2.3 million)… Divorced and separated (including married/spouse absent) older persons represented only 13% of all older persons in 2013. However, this percentage has increased since 1980, when approximately 5.3% of the older population were divorced or separated/spouse absent.
So what good is this data? What interpretation do we bring to it as individuals, family members, friends or neighbors? Is that different from any “policy” viewpoints as a society – if we even take time to consider them?
Aging and Elderly “Subgroups”
2013 census data estimates roughly 44.5 million people in the U.S. who are 65 or over. That’s a big number, don’t you think? But isn’t there a huge difference in the lifestyle of a 65-year old and an 80-year old? Male or female, married or unmarried?
This source divides our older citizens into the young old (65-74), the old (74-84), and the oldest old (85+) – an intriguing way to view our needs, likely with greater relevance.
While this Social Security Administration report is less current than I might like (2007), it addresses a particular segment of our aging population, and highlights concerns in what it refers to as an “understudied subgroup of the elderly” – namely, those who have never married, as well as those who have divorced. Among other things, economic vulnerability is referenced. After all, women earn less, their economic lives are often interrupted by motherhood, and their social security earnings are significantly impacted.
The report notes:
A growing body of economic, sociological, and demographic research has highlighted an association between marital status and adult well-being. A moderate-to-strong relationship has been found between marital status and an individual’s economic resources… However, a comparatively small amount of the literature has focused specifically on the elderly population and differences among the unmarried elderly — individuals who have never married or are divorced or widowed — are even less examined…
Aging in America Hurts
Aging in this country is a bitch, and I use that expression intentionally. It’s a bitch, especially if you’re a woman, as the appearance of youth and appearance in general seem to be a lingering (and persistent) measure of our self-esteem and value, impacting both earning and social opportunities. This is not to diminish the loneliness and losses that men who are alone may feel. Still, our culture remains extremely challenging for older women in key respects, including the lower social security earnings just mentioned.
Sure, we benefit from life lessons and growing wisdom, and I am the first to say those matter – and reinforce the comfort that may come with a few years.
Attitude helps immeasurably as well, as we may begin to focus on different types of success: We move beyond child-rearing to pursue entrepreneurship; we make space for an artistic pursuit; or we sell a home to afford adventures in travel.
But we also process loss – the spouse who has left, the career that has abandoned us, the face we cease to recognize. This last is exacerbated for women in certain regions and certain circles; most of us do fine, though we admit to a degree of periodic grieving.
Loneliness Hurts, Too
Like many of us, I am no stranger to loneliness. It is always worsened if we are hurting, whatever the reason. And while alone time is good – more so for some of us than others – isolation is another matter entirely.
Among other things, social skills critical to connecting, personally and professionally, may grow dangerously rusty. And we isolate ourselves further.
Why are we so reluctant to admit when we’re feeling painfully alone? Why can’t we fess up to times when we’re lonely and scared? Why does this stigma persist?
Of course, there are health considerations around loneliness, as studies point out, citing statistics that encourage us to travel in pairs and preferably, marry. (I do wonder if these are statistics based on male health, rather than both sexes; my observation is that marriage does wonders for men, and for women… not so much.)
As we approach the holiday season, loneliness seems most piercing. It is reinforced by media imagery, by foodstuffs in our grocery stores, and by the bustling energies of those who are not on their own and are making plans for a festive (or at least, busy) season.
It Could Be You. It Could Be Me.
Can we remember how little we know these days about our neighbors? Can we acknowledge that even those we interact with online do not necessarily reveal the texture of their daily lives? The lonely woman or man at 50 or 60 or 80… couldn’t that be you, or me, depending on the circumstances?
If not today, might that be you or me next month or next year?
We live in an era when leaving for something ‘better,’ newer, shinier is remarkably common.
All the more reason to glance up from our hectic lives – solo, in pairs, or in groups – and be aware of the experience that others are living. Whether they are in excellent health (and lonely), aging (and lonely), troubled (and lonely) – living on their own and happy about it, or living on their own and secretly lonely – or any mix of the above. Isn’t this a reminder of the need to create more fluid communities that include friends, neighbors, extended family – rather than relying on a now outmoded model of “growing old together” along with grandchildren gathered ’round?
A pretty picture?
Sure. I think it is. But realistic? Not exactly. So let’s do what caring adults do – pay attention, reach out, stay flexible.
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