December 28, 2012

Retired and Alone


This blog is focused on helping you have a satisfying retirement. In one particular regard, however, I can be of little help with direct experience: being retired and single. Being retired and unmarried, either due to never being married, divorce, or widowhood is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon. I believe this is an issue that I have overlooked for too long.

The Internet has lots of information and insight that I have been reading. There are all sorts of sites loaded with suggestions on how to live a full and active life as a single. What I found rather interesting is that most of the suggestions are very similar to those for retired folks who are married or in a long term relationship. The basic steps to stay involved and connected aren't very different.


An Important Difference


But, there is an important distinction to be made. Being alone, either by choice or fate, does affect someone differently than being part of a couple. Being alone is not the same as loneliness, but there can be a strong link. Some people relish solitude. Their basic personality is such that they function best without having to interact with someone else on a regular basis. That doesn't mean someone who enjoys solitude doesn't enjoy being with others, having friends or joining groups. Rather, it seems to be a state of mind that says I do not need another person to feel complete.

Others find solitude to be debilitating. A major cause of depression in older people is the loneliness that can overwhelm someone after the death of a spouse or having to confront a life crisis alone. Richard Norgaard wrote in an article that says what tends to happen is these people become isolated, afraid to change, or maybe don't know how to change anymore. Learning something new and engaging with other people takes too much energy and dedication. The world keeps shrinking as friends and relationships slowly slip away.

In April 2012, blogger Carolyne Marshall said, " Loneliness is more of an emotional state consisting of a hollow emptiness and profound unhappiness. It is not a voluntary condition like solitude might be. Loneliness can affect us all at different times, in different ways – whether it’s a fleeting feeling or a constant state of disconnection or isolation." Blogger Dave Bernard asked an important question in one of his posts: ""How many relationships exist where couples stay together out of a fear of being alone when they would really be better apart? How many people rush into a new relationship because they do not want to go through life alone, preferring a bad match versus no match at all?"

Sex Plays A Major Role



Women live, on average, seven years longer than men. Therefore, being alone at some stage of life is more likely to be a problem for women.  Of the nearly 14 million widows in the United States, over 11 million are female. Estimates are that  25% of all married women in the United States will be widowed by age 65, and that 50% of the remaining women will have lost their husbands by their 75th birthday. Coupled with the statistics that shows divorce is growing fastest among those 55+ and being retired and single will become more of an issue.


As I noted the suggestions for those who find themselves retired and alone are not unique. Getting a job or volunteering so you interact with people is suggested by many. Staying fresh by learning new things, taking classes, reading non-fiction to stay up-to-date on important issues, attending plays and concerts....all good ideas but maybe they miss something important that someone who is retired and alone can add to this discussion.

I am a person who enjoys solitude. I need "me" time and a clean and clutter-free space on a regular basis. But, I have been happily married for 36 years, retired for 11, and expect my wife to be by my side as we age together. I really can't place myself in the shoes of someone who is on the retirement journey alone.


Interestingly, the PBS web site, Next Avenue, had an article a few days ago on the perils of aging alone. I guess we both arrived at the same conclusion: this is an important topic.

Retired and Alone: Can You Help Us?



So, this is where I need you. If you are retired and single for any reason I would really appreciate your insight. If you have friends who are single and retired and would consider adding their thoughts, please ask them to visit here.

How does being alone affect you, your lifestyle and your choices during retirement? Is it nice to be able to do what you want when you want without meshing schedules with someone else? Have you always been single and can't imagine any other way?

Or, is your aloneness in retirement something that you didn't plan for or think might happen to you? How are you handling this life change? What suggestions do you have for others in the same situation? What makes it better?

This is an important subject and one that I can't believe I have overlooked for so long. A satisfying retirement is our goal. How does our relational state affect it?

19 comments:

  1. Hi, Bob...

    Two things jump out at me right away as mitigators of loneliness: pets and the phone.

    I don't think I have to belabor the point on pets. Cats, dogs, etc are best described as animal companions. And I think you know that's just what they are. They give you affection, a living being to take care of, and "someone" to talk to. (Show me a pet person that does not talk to its animal companion -- I dare you!)

    TALKING to people is part of being connected with other persons. So, the phone. (Email & texting not so much, I think.) The phone is a monster weapon against loneliness. Add VIDEO-phoning through your computer (like my Dad does) and you are golden.

    Cheers!

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    1. There have been all sorts of studies that show a pet is a tremendous health plus for older or alone folks. Good point, Alex.

      Services like Skype make having a video phone call so easy. With VOIP and most cell phones now having free long distance, talking to others has never been easier....and less common! You are absolutely right: texting doesn't count.

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  2. I do not have experience in being alone, (and we are not even quite retired yet--but I am planning ahead!) I have relatives and in laws who have allowed their lives to shrink , and who have refused to learn new things or make new friends. Some of them are very lonely. As an almost-60 year old,I am trying to learn from other's experience (and from your blog!!) .I volunteer and make a point to make new friends and try new activities.

    One thing not mentioned here which is very important to me: Spiritual growth and activity. At any age, becoming a member of a church, a meditation group, a prayer group or a Bible study group, could enhance one's life, add new friends, and certainly, warm the heart and spirit.

    Most faith communities also offer a rich menu of activities such as pot lucks, volunteer opportunities, day trips, meals on wheels, visits to the sick, etc. .. It's nice to know when you're healthy and able, you can be a helper, and when you may need assistance yourself, there is a community for you.

    Not to be overly "religious" here -- but a faith in a higher power (whatever you name it) can also help with the crises and day to day troubles that may be hard to face alone..

    Just my thoughts....

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    1. I couldn't agree more. My life really took off when I rediscovered my spiritual side several years ago. Not only does it help me understand my purpose in being here and keep me focused on something much bigger than me, but it does provide companionship and a strong support system.

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  3. That is interesting that you see yourself as having overlooked this topic. I am retired and alone (especially alone now that I have an empty nest), but in my own mind you have addressed aspects of this topic many times, maybe because so much of what you write is not specific to couples or singles. At any rate, I have not felt left out!

    I have been single for the last decade or so, and happily. I'm not lonely, and as my daughter observes, I am never bored (we've decided "She was never bored" will be my epitaph).

    But now that I have an empty nest, I can certainly sense a shift of energy in my life towards more solitude. I've been looking forward to it, and yet I imagine there will be times when I will miss daily companionship. It seems to me that this is a time when I am seeking to turn more inward, to spend more time in spiritual practice, to quiet my busy-ness, to listen.

    But there will come a time perhaps when I want to be more socially engaged and then what will that look like? I haven't been a single adult in the world without children under my roof for over 25 years, so I guess we'll just have to stay tuned and find out.

    You will surely generate a lot of interesting discussion with this post, as you already have with the two comments above.

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    1. When I was looking back over relational posts they dealt with adult children or how to adjust to retirement with another person or where to live after retirement. But, having nothing to really say directly on the topic of being retired and alone this specific topic never entered my mind. A magazine article (I don't remember where or which one) prompted me to think about the need for me to write this post.

      I sincerely hope the comments help me get a better feel for this situation. As "singleness" becomes more prevalent in society it is a subject that really transcends retirement.

      Your comment and insight are a tremendous addition. Thank you.

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  4. Bob,

    I am retired, never married and live alone. I can honestly say I have always loved my solitude and to my knowledge I have never truly experienced the feeling of loneliness. I recognize that that is highly unusual, but there it is! I love people, have lots of friends, family close by, an active social life and activities but I need and enjoy my solitude. I am a retired academic, so reading, reflecting and contemplation are a long standing habit.

    I have observed that many people have seemingly lost the ability to be alone without problems. One of my closest high school buddies lost his wife to cancer, and is now (after a period of grieving) desperately seeking another companion. He is miserable and depressed because "no one is around." He has never developed a separate "self" that has any significance without another as a reference point. He has no desire to enlarge his life "solo." Even for awhile. I have concerns because several of his recent companions have been a bit "shady" in motivations. I am afraid he might be taken advantage of, but I can only be a supportive friend and sounding board.

    My only personal concern going forward is needing supportive care. I have chatted with you before about our similar circumstance--losing my mother a year ago and taking care of my elderly father, age 87. I am very much aware of how much help he needs, and I do occasionally worry about how I might manage. My friends say, "that's why you should have married and have children--to have someone to take care of you." That always struck me as a bit selfish as a reason to have a significant other. There are no guarantees that your spouse will have better health and be able to care for you, and I know many unfortunate elders who's children live many thousands of miles away and have little involvement in the care of their parents, other than an occasional visit and writing periodic checks.

    In the end, each of us has to respond to our inner feelings and personality and create a circumstance that suits us. Going forward I have committed to continue to help my family and friends as I am able and trust that enough of them are ready to help me if I need it. It is working, so far.

    Another great post, Bob. I will be interested in the thoughts and experience of others.

    Rick in Oregon

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    1. That is an insightful comment, Rick. You have presented a very clear picture of your situation, your concerns, and your approach to making it work. The supportive care issue is one that, married or not, we all face at some point. How we handle it speaks volumes about what kind of person we are.

      I was named after my Uncle who died 26 years ago. He remains a major influence in my life. He was never married, was a major figure at the University where he worked, and loved his solitude. He was socially active with his work responsibilities but loved nothing more than being home with a glass of sherry and a good book. He owned a cabin back in the woods where he would go to chop wood and do "manly" stuff. But, he was a man in love with his life and his choices. I loved him deeply.

      I am very comfortable in my own skin and have no problem being alone. I am also very comfortable in being with the woman I love. I think I have achieved a good balance of me and us time.

      Thank you, Rick, for your presence on this blog.

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  5. Steve in Los AngelesSat Dec 29, 02:12:00 AM MST

    Hi Bob,

    I am an expert on living alone, as I never have been married and, in all likelihood, never will get married. I have enjoyed having solitude. Furthermore, my current lifestyle, which is necessary so that I can advance happily into the next stage of my life, requires frugal living for approximately the next 13 years and two months. I highly doubt that any woman would be willing to put up with my current lifestyle.

    As I am semiretired, my part time work, which requires interaction with other people, and other activities keep me quite busy. However, I need to add that I, to a degree, have become necessarily somewhat selfish with regard to the "opposite sex", because I have worked so hard and so persistently to achieve what I have achieved throughout my adult life that I am not willing at all to even slightly risk losing what I have accomplished. Unfortunately, divorce is such a pervasive part of out society today. It is clear that I would much rather be safe than sorry. Furthermore, I firmly believe that one of the reasons why I am so healthy is that I have avoided the stresses that accompany married life for men. I am certain that there are wonderful single women out there. However, I am so tired of the dating scene that I do not want to take any chances whatsoever.

    Steve

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    1. Happy holiday season to you, Steve.

      You have looked at your goals and needs and made very conscious decisions about your lifestyle. That is a mature approach. While others may question what you are doing, ultimately you are the "responsible" party and your choices are the ones that matter.

      I will disagree with you in one regard. Most studies indicate that married men live longer than single men, if you and your partner are right for each other. If there is incompatibility then stress does result and that is not healthy. But, in most cases being married = a longer life.

      Again, though, I understand your position completely and believe it is right for you.

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    2. Steve in Los AngelesSun Dec 30, 03:36:00 AM MST

      Happy holidays to you and your family also, Bob.

      I may be able to believe that married men live longer than single men provided that the husband and wife are compatible. However, if there is not enough compatibility, then the results can be disastrous. With regard to healthy living, I certainly know what behaviors, such as a having a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, and avoiding tobacco products (including avoiding or at least severely limiting exposure secondhand smoke), contribute to leading a long and happy life. Although I am not vain, I periodically look into the mirror and examine my face. I certainly do not look my actual age.

      Thank you for your comments.

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  6. Bob: It was interesting you brought up this topic soon after one of my 'pool buddies' had told me that she is concerned about her husband retiring soon. She prefers a great deal of alone time and knows that will now change. I retired earlier in the year, and added another hobby interest on an evening that I had free. I wanted to increase social interaction, and the people I met there have become important to me.

    Back when I did more travel alone, I could toss my bike on the car, and play music as loud as I wanted. Now I travel more often with someone, and the bike is not along, and the music is off. One is not better than the other, it's just different.

    As I'm still adjusting my 'routine' I'm finding myself treasuring friendships more, maybe because I have more time for them?

    And yes, those pets greeting me at the door keep me from feeling alone. Thanks for an interesting post.

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    1. And thank you for your thoughts! Have a great New Year's celebration, even if it is a quiet one with hubby and pets.

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  7. Hi Bob, I'm glad you've written this post. While I am not currently retired or married, I am in a long term relationship. As someone who is legally single I do worry some times about growing old alone, and what life will be like. I have one child and I certainly don't expect her to take care of me, but I'll probably need help at some point. So I'll just cross that bridge when I come to it.

    The pet companionship does help a great deal as my partner and I do not live together. Coming home to a pet companion may not be ideal for everyone, but it works for me.

    I'm going to have to echo some of what Steve in L.A. mentioned. After having worked for so many years to achive some level of financial freedom, I'd hate to lose it to some stranger who did not take the time to save. When I was dating I met a man whose first questions to me were "What do you do, and how much do you make?". So I can certainly appreciate his hesitation in finding a human companion. I suspect there are alot of "gold diggers" out there just waiting to get their hands on someone else's money.

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    1. Thanks so much, Gail, for sharing your thoughts and perspective on this issue. As I noted, I have to depend on others to present all sides of this issue. Even if married many of us will be alone at some point due to death or divorce.

      That guy actually asked how much you made? I hope you ran away quickly. That's almost unbelievable.

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  8. Happy New Year Bob! Thanks so much for presenting this topic. I am an introvert by nature so have always enjoyed solitude. As I evolved I became a socialized introvert. I have been single due to divorce since 1999. Loneliness is not an issue for me. I have found my life is enriched by family and friends, including my church family and especially my dog. I think the most important thing is to find out what one's needs are and go from there. I have enjoyed reading all the comments. Georgia

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    1. I require lots of solitude. Luckily, so does my wife. But, we enjoy our together time tremendously, too. It has worked because we have followed what you say: "the most important thing is to find out what one's needs are and go from there." We accept how each of us are "built," and use that knowledge to keep our 36 year marriage quite healthy.

      Thanks, Georgia. I am going to start reading your blog, Jolly Pond Farm. I love the name and am enjoying the last few posts.

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  9. Sincere congratulations Bob! You and everyone posting comments here, all sound so well adjusted in their retirement. And I want to thank all of you for letting me know that it is possible. I, on the other hand, am going a little crazy trying to adapt to being retired and single.

    Though I fully appreciate and recognize retirement as the amazing blessing of not having to spend 8 hours a day at a desk and working for someone else; I only sleep about 5 hours a night, and can't seem to figure out how to fill the 19 hours that remain in the day. The search for suggestions and an answer have finally led me to your blog. So thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights online.

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    1. I sincerely hope you find some support and answers here. It usually takes a year or two to figure out how to best use your time, so if you are rather recently retired, take a deep breath and know that you will figure it out.

      What did you do when you weren't working? What did you do for fun and relaxation? What did you always wish you could do more of? Retirement simply means you have more time to do what you enjoyed doing when you weren't working.

      Don't put too much pressure on yourself. For many simply enjoying an afternoon with a good book, or a walk in the park is what's right for them. People watching in the mall can be quite entertaining.

      The point is there is no right thing for everyone. It is as unique as you are. You don't have to be productive anymore. You just have to do what makes you happy.

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