February 21, 2015 by Jean
As a retiree living alone – particularly one who has high needs for solitude – I am at risk for social isolation. (See Transitioning to Retirement: The Issue of Social Relationships.) During the summer before my retirement, I developed a plan to guard against this risk by making an effort to have at least one meaningful social interaction per week (for example, by having someone over for lunch or dinner, visiting a friend, or going on a social outing with others).
But since moving home to Maine to live full-time last May, I have found this plan more difficult to implement than I anticipated. During the more than six months that my new addition was under construction, the noise, mess, and reduced access to space made me reluctant to invite people over and I saw much less of friends than I had anticipated. Ironically, the very presence of all the construction guys made me crave solitude, leading me to turn down some evening invitations in favor of some quiet down time. During the summer, when I spent much of my time outdoors, I wasn’t really conscious of the social isolation. By late fall, however, when I was forced indoors into space that was made physically uncomfortable by the construction, I began to feel deprived of social interaction.
Just before the New Year, although work on my house was still going on, I invited friends over for a meal and declared my period of social isolation over. In the weeks that followed, I fully moved into and claimed my new space, and hosted the January lunch gathering of my W.O.W. retiree group. But before I could get into the swing of my reclaimed social life, winter arrived with a vengeance. Since late January, we have had a snow storm every three days. Once again, I am reluctant to invite people over, because access to my house (at the end of a rural dirt road) can be iffy in bad weather. Making plans that involve going somewhere is also tricky, because getting out requires several hours of shoveling after each storm. The result is that I’ve been mostly staying home.
By last weekend, I realized that I had a bad case of cabin fever. It was discouraging to realize that we were only halfway through February, because it felt like it had already been a year long. It is one thing so stay home because I want to in the summer, but quite a different thing to stay home because getting out is difficult.
At that point, I realized that I needed to reinstate my “one meaningful social interaction per week” rule, which I had given up on during the long months of construction chaos. But when I stopped to figure out how long it had been since my last social event or visit, I was surprised to realize that my friend Anne had come by to visit and to help me move some furniture just a few days earlier, and that I had been out to lunch with my W.O.W. retiree group just a few days before that. In other words, I had met my goal for social interaction, and it was not enough. On Tuesday, I made a point of driving into Portland for an afternoon visit with my friend Joyce, but by Friday I was already feeling isolated again.
It turns out that what constitutes social isolation is seasonably variable for me. While one meaningful social interaction per week can be more than adequate for me in summer, I need to build in more interaction in the winter. This is a conundrum because I need to spend more time with people at the very time of year when it is most difficult to do so. I’m thinking that I need to aim for two meaningful social interactions per week during the months of December, January, February and March, but I still need to put some thought into how to do this. Given the weather constraints (especially this winter!), I may need to develop my capacity for spontaneous social occasions, like calling a friend at the last minute for dinner out or a movie. I also need to be more spontaneous about my own life so that I don’t turn down invitations (as I did this week) because of some solitary home project (e.g., painting) that I had planned for that day.
This first year of retirement is turning out to be a learning process, as I discover that problems I had anticipated don’t materialize, that I encounter other problems I didn’t anticipate, and that my carefully laid plans don’t always work out!