July 21, 2018 by Jean
I 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.