Solo Seniors: The Courage to Change the Things I Can

19

July 21, 2018 by Jean

serenity prayerI try to live by the philosophy of the serenity prayer. I’m probably best at the second part, “the courage to change the things I can.” When in doubt, I tend to think there’s something I can do to make change, a tendency I trace back to having grown up in the labor movement. My father was a steelworker who was committed to labor unions, was an officer of his union local when I was a child, and who taught us to respect the power of collective action. As a result, when I see a problem, I’m likely to think, “Who do we organize to do something about this?”

I’ve been very interested in the issue of those aging alone since I first discovered the Facebook group for “Elder Orphans.” (See Help From Friends.) I no longer participate actively in that group; it seems to be more focused on emotional support than on the kinds of practical solutions that most interest me. But I have been on the lookout for other opportunities to develop those practical solutions.

Last winter, I attended a workshop at my local Senior College on creating advance directives run by a staffer from a local hospice organization. The workshop organizer began by having the dozen or so participants introduce ourselves, and the woman who introduced herself first, a long-time single mother, noted that the issue of advance directives had become much more complicated for her since her only child had died unexpectedly. When it was my turn to introduce myself, I noted that, as part of the population sometimes called “elder orphans” or “solo agers,” I had similar issues. At some point during the discussion that followed, the first woman exclaimed, “There should be a support group for people like us.” So in my inimitable “who do we organize” fashion, I walked over to her at the end of the workshop, introduced myself, and said “Why don’t we start a support group?”

In the weeks that followed, the two of us explored the idea. We communicated frequently by email and met once for lunch to discuss possibilities. Each of us approached a couple of friends to see if they would be interested in such a group. (They were.) One day, my co-organizer got a few of us together after a class that we were all attending to discuss practical details like when and where the group could meet. We decided on monthly meetings and on mid-day as the best time for most, and we thought that a brown-bag lunch arrangement would keep things simple. The thorniest problem was finding a meeting place. We identified an open lounge area at the local university campus as a possibility (although admittedly not perfect).

Meanwhile, I had signed up for a symposium on “Reframing Aging” (see Reframing Aging) where I chose to attend a breakout session on research about aging. Although I don’t expect to be doing active research myself, I hoped to be able to help shape the research agenda. To that end, I asked the panelists to consider doing research that focused on those aging alone and especially on the barriers that family-centered practices in services for senior citizens create for this group. One of the panelists, a faculty member in the University’s Masters in Occupational Therapy program, which is located at my local campus, asked me if I would be willing to work with her students on developing such a research project. I would. Two weeks later, when I met with the OT faculty member to discuss the research idea further, I happened to mention our incipient Solo Seniors support group and our need for a meeting place. She offered us the use of the OT department’s conference room. The pieces were falling into place.

The Solo Seniors group had our first official meeting in May and a second one in June. Our July meeting will take place in a few days. At this point, there are seven members of the group, and we are “solo” in a variety of ways. None of us are married; two are widows, three are long-time divorcees, and two have never been married. Most of us live alone, but one shares with a long-time housemate. The two widows have children who can be called on for some assistance, but most of us do not have children. We all have siblings, but most of the siblings live at a distance and are not part of our routine help networks. (As one group member said of her brother who lives on the west coast, “He may as well be on Mars.”) We are all women (not surprising given the sex ratios among the older population and the higher rates of singlehood among women), and we range in age from the sixties to the eighties.

The group is still in the process of developing and figuring out what we want to focus on. It seems likely that some of our meetings will not have a specific agenda but be open to whatever is on participants’ minds. In other months, we might invite local professionals who provide services for seniors to meet with us. Both my co-organizer and I are feeling pleased that the group has been launched and that we had the courage to try to make a difference.

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19 thoughts on “Solo Seniors: The Courage to Change the Things I Can

  1. Donna Aubuchon Aubuchon says:

    I am a single senior with a long time housemate as well. I am a retired RN 3 years now, No children. How can I join this group?

    • Jean says:

      Donna, Are you in the Lewiston-Auburn, Maine area, or close enough to Lewiston to travel there for a meeting once a month? If so, fill out the form on my contact page to send me a private email and I’ll get back to you.

      • Donna Aubuchon Aubuchon says:

        Jean, I live in Augusta, Mo. I don’t think we have any groups here. I too feel a need for connection. I enjoyed my life as a RN for 37 years at the same hospital. I worked in several different areas. Now so many of my friends are retired also and we meet several times a year for lunch. I started a Facebook group for our fellow workers and it has grown. I arranged a reunion last year was fun. But, almost everyone have grandchildren. Sometimes I just want to talk to someone in my circumstances.

        • Jean says:

          Donna, Too bad that’s not Augusta, ME — which is less than an hour away from where we meet. I suggest contacting your area agency on aging to see if they could help with getting a solo seniors group organized. It looks as though the Augusta area is served by Aging Ahead; here is a link to their web site: https://agingmissouri.org/home.

        • Donna Aubuchon says:

          Thanks Jean. I’m sorry too that I am not closer to you all. I like the idea of solo seniors. To be single without children is a different challenge. I have my nieces and love them very much but, to able to communicate with like people is very helpful.

  2. Dellann Vickers says:

    How interesting. I hope to glean more insight into how I could promote a similar group in my community. I have often felt the need to communicate with solo seniors, but as a introvert I haven’t found a way to approach that mutual need with others. I look forward to reading more of your blogs.

    • Jean says:

      Dellann, Is there a Senior Center or local Agency on Aging in your community? If so, you might contact them to see if they would be willing to help organize such a group.

  3. Jean R. says:

    If I was in your area I’d join your group. Widowed, no children and no close relatives or friends living close by leaves me feeling like a disaster waiting to happen. I look forward to hearing about how your group evolves.

  4. Diana Studer says:

    I respect and admire your courage, and the rewards it brings you and ‘yours’.

    • Jean says:

      Thanks, Diana. Some of the social psychology research shows that those who can deal with stressful situations by taking some kind of action are better able to cope with stress.

  5. Barbara - says:

    I love this idea. I also found the elder orphan groups concentrated on issues like depression and such. Valuable issues. But not mine. As someone who has lived alone apart from relatives and probably will again, great idea.

  6. Sue McPhee says:

    “The courage to change.”
    Having known you these many years, I am not surprised. You have always been strong, practical-minded and embracing a lot of admirable “chutzpah.” Your group should be ever so grateful for this.
    We do have a very strong local support system for solo seniors in our area, although not specifically called such. There’s a senior center the next town over that has helped so many with the issues of aging alone, mostly women. The group in our own town was begun by a client of mine who, though not aging alone, has worked with both town’s groups and has high sensitivity to their needs.
    I have several clients who attend either one or the other town’s group and have seen them blossom and thrive as they become more emotionally, socially and (most importantly) practically supported.
    I am so happy you have taken this on, not just for you but for the fortunate women who will benefit greatly from this. Yes, solo agers need emotional support but, at the end of the day, practical approaches and solutions, with a supportive meeting place to discuss such, may indeed be “just what the doctor ordered.”

    • Jean says:

      Thanks, Sue. You have known me for a long time! (65 or 66 years?) I’d be interested in knowing more about the kinds of supports available to solo seniors in your area.

  7. Hi Jean! What an awesome idea and how wonderful that you are such a powerful force for good in the world. I am married but I have no children so I can appreciate some of the dilemmas that you bring up for many people (mainly women) in the world. I think groups like yours should be available in all communities because this situation is only going to grow and get bigger as we all age. Of course, I’m also a “take charge” kind of person and perhaps that’s why I REALLY appreciate your approach. I am far more interested in learning what practical steps I can take to ensure greater peace of mind and happiness in the future than I am to complain (or bemoan) the disadvantages. I look forward to reading more about your growing group in the future. ~Kathy

    • Jean says:

      Kathy, I think this group is going to become more visible as the baby boom ages. I read somewhere that 1/3 of all baby boomers are single and about 15% have no children.

  8. Penelope says:

    please put me on your list Jean! penelope.emmons@gmail.com

    • Jean says:

      Hi Penelope, Alas, this is an in-person group, not an email list. Unless you’ve relocated to Maine and didn’t tell me, I think these meetings are going to be too far to commute from either Atlanta or Lily Dale. 😉

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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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