My wife Linda left last Tuesday to go to her high school reunion in Hawaii. I didn’t want to go with her, and she didn’t press me on it. How many days can you devote to making small talk with very nice people you haven’t met before and probably won’t see again? AND I had an ulterior motive: As someone who is seldom alone for more than a few hours at a time, I wanted to experiment with being alone for a week and a day, safe in the knowledge that it was temporary.
Given the statistics on longevity, Linda will likely outlive me, and it will be her job to wrestle with being alone. Still, I could be the one left alone. And I’ve begun wondering how I would handle it.
I have most of the required domestic skills for solo survival because I was the oldest son and also a single parent for so many years. I can cook, clean, and do laundry, shop, mess things up, tidy things up, pay household bills, arrange for events with friends, take psychic nutrition from the serenity of our otherwise unoccupied house, say “no thank you” to lunch and dinner invitations from friends who already think I’m nuts by conducting this experiment, sleep reasonably well alone, and ask for help when I’m feeling isolated. (For me, isolation could be a real problem.)
I began my alone research by observing some of my male friends more closely, and myself during the eight days Linda was away. I discovered several faces of alone.
Conscious aloneness. I have a friend, call him Adam, age 69, in Pennsylvania. His wife died 10 years ago. The right woman hasn’t come along, and through the years I have watched him adapt both his comfort levels and his expectations without abandoning his efforts. Adam has an apartment that’s a kind of nest, comfortable without ostentation of any kind, with book-lined walls and all kinds of recorded music. There is great public transportation nearby and a charming shopping street within walking distance. He has an active social network. Sometimes he is lonely but isn’t undone by being alone. Retired now, Adam meets people when he volunteers and when he travels. He is at one end of what I have come to see as the Alone Continuum, the guy who has for the most part found his place alone and with others.
Confusing aloneness and not busy enough. Another friend, call him Ben, age 73, lives in Ohio. He’s retired, and was divorced three years ago after a 30-year marriage. His M.O. is that he is only content when he’s busy. The rest of the time he’s anxious. Ben is without any noticeable nesting instincts of his own. He is seeking the right female companion with no expectations of exclusivity or permanence. He says he can’t stand being alone, that it’s actually painful for him. I’m unclear whether he’s more afraid of being alone or more undone by lack of busy-ness. I am clear, however, that Ben is at the other end from Adam along the Alone Continuum.
Alone In A Crowd. Now we come to Charlie, age 58, who lives in California. Charlie attends a lot of large social events and pays great attention to his appearance. He can’t stand being wrong or being challenged. So he surrounds himself with people who won’t disagree with him, often hanging out graciously but alone in crowds. If Charlie isn’t happy, no one around him is allowed to be happy either. He says he’s lonely. Charlie shares one end of the alone continuum with Ben.
As for my time on my own, how did I do? I have had a great week, filled with joy and feelings of competence. Still, I’ll be glad for my wife’s return home tomorrow. (I’m already marinating her favorite teriyaki steaks.) Did I miss her terribly? No. Is missing immediately and intensely somehow a requirement for great love and devotion? I don’t think so.
As a result of my experiment, I’m much clearer than ever before that:
- I have the ability to be alone if that is what life hands me. It isn’t what I want. But I won’t be undone by it, and that’s a relief.
- I am no longer embedded in a role (parent, spouse, homeowner, consultant, author, grandparent, researcher, speaker) as my primary way of knowing who I am; somehow in the last 10 years I have developed a sense of myself that endures without roles as a requirement. And this already gives me a leg up, so to speak, on being alone.
- I think it would be good for all of us to experiment with solitude before it knocks on our doors with utterly unforgiving permanence.
- My friends Ben and Charlie would be well served to take Adam out to dinner and inquire in depth about how he manages. And then to try some of what worked for Adam in their own lives.
- Our society often views singlehood after 50 with a dark and suspicious eye. It doesn’t have to be so. We get to choose what alone means for us.
- One of the best things we can do for ourselves after 50 is to take consistent action, renewing and replenishing our social networks. We need to meet and socialize with people of different backgrounds, interests and viewpoints. Building relationships only with people we agree with isn’t renewal. It’s acquisition. Besides, that’s exactly how older people get isolated—they hang out with the same people for years. Then their friends die off and move away while they did little, if anything, to replenish their group of friends.
Which brings me to one my biggest takeaways from this experience: As Linda and I grow older, it’s important that we have our own lives, even though our shared life dominates. This does NOT mean I’m less devoted to my wife. It does mean we can’t depend upon each other exclusively to be OK. We have to depend upon ourselves, too. And upon others. That seems to be a requirement of aging well.
Here’s another important lesson: Loneliness and isolation aren’t completely avoidable, but they don’t have to swamp us. NOW is the time to consider practicing with being alone, at least occasionally. NOW is the time to take all of this seriously, because later may be way too late.
You may want to start, as I did, with Home Alone. Or do you have other strategies in mind?
Getting Real About Being Alone
If you are in a relationship, no matter how long you have been together or how well (or not) you get along, one of you will be alone someday. It happens that this is top of mind at the moment. My new possible solution: Line Dancing.
Really? Line Dancing?
Yes. It came to me when my wife, Brown Eyes, said to me, “I’m going to have to be careful to live a big enough life if you aren’t around.”
Through the years she has wandered around Shanghai with me, drunk wine with locals in Spain’s La Rioja, attended a Buddhist banquet near a Florida river with signs warning of alligators, had a massage in Halong City conducted by a tiny woman who walked on Linda’s back, watched Sushi the Drag Queen descend onto the stage in a sequined red slipper in Key West at midnight on New Year’s Eve, eaten in places she would never have explored on her own (for example, Martha Lou’s Kitchen in Charleston, SC) and attended a Christmas musical performance in an ancient church in Paris’ Le Marais, sitting in wooden chairs so small that our knees were near our ears. And these are just a few examples of our adventures.
Don’t get me wrong. She’s a highly accomplished powerhouse in her own right. She’s just not as aggressive about seeking out the strange and offbeat when she travels.
Why is sudden aloneness on my mind?
- Our friend Bob is recovering from a major stroke. His incapacitation means that his wife is doing more things on her own, by necessity rather than choice.
- Our friend Alex was just diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. His wife is asking herself how she is going to want to spend her time when he dies.
- My friend Eric just had surgery and has begun talking regularly about how old we are getting.
- My friend Dee, after a year and a half of widowhood, finds solace in keeping very busy. Especially with her grandchildren.
Brown Eyes and I are in agreement that, regardless of how important our interdependence is, we both need to cultivate some of our own independent activities and relationships.
Her answer will be somehow wrapped up with Osher’s Lifelong Learning Institutes, I think. This is a network of intellectually curious and stimulating learners. She hasn’t yet come up with how she’ll manage physical activity, but I know she’s thinking about it.
My answers balance vigorous exercise with activities that are purely creative/intellectual and/or have a social element:
- Riding my new bike alone and with friends
- Creating and running a manageable number of small businesses
- Building new and expanded networks of relationships around #2
- Sogetsu Ikebana; I just qualified to be a Sensei (instructor)
- Writing and speaking
- Quality time with my grandchildren and friends
- Volunteer board memberships I really believe in (in my case, WUSF, which is both a PBS and an NPR affiliate)
Which brings me back to line dancing. My wife and I both love to dance. Line dancing is something we can do for a long time, either together or individually. It’s great exercise, it’s social, you don’t need to be in a couple to have fun, and you can happily avoid hearing and doing the Blue Danube Waltz.
Let me know what’s on your list. I’d like to share the information with my readers, especially those who are willing to look ahead, too.
Retirement For One
By now you have heard—probably not for the first time—about the staggering percentage of adults age 50 and older who haven’t saved enough (or anything at all) for retirement. For most of those non-savers, that means that they’ll be working well past 65, just to make ends meet.
If you’re part of a couple, you at least have the possibility of two people bringing in two paychecks. Even if the total income is modest, it’s at least a way to share the financial burden.
But what about singletons?
For anyone facing life after 50 on their own, whether through divorce, widowhood or no marriage at all, there’s no sharing of the financial burden with a partner. And in fact that burden can be disproportionately harsh because singletons don’t have the same tax advantages as married couples, nor do they have the luxury of the health benefits and insurance policies their spouses may provide.
I’ve been thinking about this situation since reading a terrific article in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend about retirement planning for singles. Two might be able to live as cheaply as one, but as writer Jane Hodges points out, living alone doesn’t mean having half the costs of a couple, especially when it comes to housing.
What’s particularly alarming, Hodges wrote, is that 35% of single men and 49% of single women will enter retirement financially unprepared. For women, it’s particularly problematic because they typically earn less than men.
Divorcees have to be especially careful about relying on assets like alimony and life-insurance policies, both of which can get cut off abruptly. Alimony designed to cover a former spouse for life, Hodges wrote, may dry up after the death of the former spouse who was paying. And singles who don’t become “owners” on a shared insurance policy may find themselves without benefits if an ex takes them off the beneficiary list.
What’s the takeaway from all of this?
If you’re in a couple, plan for contingencies for the surviving spouse. If you’re in considering divorce, make sure you factor in retirement savings when crafting a financial settlement. And if you’re a singleton, get aggressive about saving if you aren’t already, and be crafty about income streams in retirement.
Here’s the link to the full Wall Street Journal article.