Living Alone

10

May 11, 2015 by Jean

My experience of retirement is strongly shaped by the fact that I live alone. This is not an unusual experience, especially for women. According to U.S. Census data, most women age 65 or over are unmarried, and most of those unmarried women live alone. Forty-five percent of households headed by someone age 65 or older are single-person households, and women are much more likely than men to be in those single-person households.

Despite these realities, most of the research and literature on retirement focuses on the needs and experiences of couples. I think this may be because, until recently, almost all that literature focused on men’s retirement experiences, and men are more likely to be coupled.

Out of curiosity, I did a Google search for “living alone after retirement.” The first page of hits included five from retirement bloggers. Two of these (both from Barbara at Living Richly in Retirement) presented living alone as a positive experience. The other three included a request from Bob at Satisfying Retirement for people who live alone in retirement to share their experiences, a post entitled “Living Alone: The Worst Retirement Choice” and another on “Dealing with Loneliness in Retirement Life.” The hits that were not from blogs included an article from AARP on “10 Best Cities for Older Singles” – with an emphasis on cities with a lively older dating scenes and opportunities to “meet someone new” – and an article from U.S. News on “How to Live Alone Without Being Lonely.”

The focus in most of these hits seemed to be on living alone as an unwanted, lonely existence, but one that you can learn to make the best of (if you can’t find someone new and stop living alone). Largely missing were the voices of those who choose to live alone and find it a life-enhancing experience. Recently, Kim Adonna, who blogs about a wide range of topics at kimberleeadonna, has been filling in these missing voices in a series of guest posts about living alone (the Who But You? project). Today, my contribution to this series, “The Joys of Solitude” has been published on Kim’s blog. To read it, click here.

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10 thoughts on “Living Alone

  1. Jean R. says:

    I enjoyed getting to know your life history better through this essay. One sentence in particular spoke to me, though. It came near the end and went something like: “…needing to balance my love of solitude with an increasing need for help as I age.” I write often about finding friends but what I don’t say is that inside I know my search for friendship is selfishly motivated. It’s that increasing need for help as we age that scares me and keeps me searching for someone to trade “old people” favors with. I don’t need someone for the day to day stuff—my art, hobbies and reading are solitude activities. I don’t need to go two-by-two out in the world but they don’t let you drive yourself home from things like cataract surgery. Too bad we don’t live closer. We could be each others colonoscopy buddies. LOL

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I had to chuckle at the notion of “colonscopy buddies.” My tendency when I need this kind of help is to send out an email request to my whole circle of friends and see who volunteers. When I had my last colonoscopy, one friend came out to my house in the morning to pick me up and take me to the hospital and another was on call to pick me up and drive me home when they were ready to discharge me.

  2. K. Adonna says:

    I truly enjoyed this post and of course, the work of word art you contributed in my world. I’m still learning how incredibly loaded the act of living alone really is — still learning as I sift through the endless layers of information out there and around me. Personality plays a part, and intro/extroversion, gender roles, upbringings, and of course, finances. Jean R. has a cool point about friendships as we age — I don’t think it’s selfish at all. Even in my mid-40’s I’m wondering who will actually be there for me if something goes terribly wrong. I dated after my divorce several years ago but I’m getting to the point where I see myself single and living alone indefinitely because I don’t want to find myself in a caretaking role. Of course, this means that no one will be caught in a caretaking role in order to be there for me! This is where I feel stuck.

    • Jean says:

      Kim, I wonder if the way to get unstuck is to think about extensive rather than intensive helping networks — by that I mean many people that you exchange small amounts of help with so that nobody feels overwhelmed by the caretaking role. I was inspired by a film I used to use in one of my courses called “Look For Me Here.” It’s about the last year in the life of Nora Lenihan, a single Boston social worker who was dying of metastatic breast cancer. Norah was able to rally a whole network of friends and relatives in a way that made it possible to die at home. At one point in the film, Nora stays up all night to put together a caretaking manual called “Stuff to Know” in preparation for a meeting with her hospice nurse and her extensive caretaking network.

      • K. Adonna says:

        Jean, I would absolutely love to check out this film! Thank you for the reminder about teamwork — I see such networks around me here in New Mexico, and…. Hmm, perhaps that may be an offshoot project of “Who but You?” 🙂

  3. Stacy Moore says:

    I so much appreciated this post, Jean! I’ve spent far more time living alone than not, and it is hard to find positive images in society of aloneness! Too many either assume that aloneness ought to be changed or come across as angry or sour grapes-y instead. It’s just a relief to read your story and see someone coming to realize all the enjoyable things about being on one’s own — not as a criticism or rejection of other ways of life, but just as a statement of fact. For a long time I thought of my aloneness as a result of illness, which makes getting out a real burden. I really have had to choose — keep working, or have a social life. But it’s become clearer to me over the years how much I’ve prioritized independence because I thoroughly enjoy it. Like you, I find experiences in nature more intense and meaningful alone, so when I can get out I seek out nature more than city life, which I enjoy more in company. Aloneness may thus be shaping me to be more outdoorsy, but that’s not exactly a problem. 🙂

    I do find, though, that community is critically important when you’re alone. I don’t always have that, because it really is hard to participate in activities beyond what is needed for daily life. It’s scary to feel isolated, and Jean R.’s comment about aging really resonated. But that’s a different aspect of aloneness than living by oneself and enjoying the serenity in one’s own home.

    • Jean says:

      Stacey, I suppose my love of solitude turned me into an outdoorsy person, too. I struggle with that tension between solitude and community, and felt it particularly acutely this winter when I had trouble getting out. (My weather-bound isolation may have been similar to your illness-bound isolation, except that I know spring will come). When I’m getting out and seeing people regularly, it makes it easier for me to build the kinds of relationships where I can offer help to others and feel comfortable asking for help (something I’ve never been good at).

  4. This is sad that the assumption is living alone is unwanted…until I met my husband I enjoyed living alone and would have had we not married…I am glad there is a voice now and will pop over to read your post.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, It does seem as though singleness and living alone as a manifestation of singleness are more stigmatized for women than for men. It’s interesting to think about why this is so, especially because women (especially elderly women) are more likely to live alone than men and are also more likely to enjoy it.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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