According to a 2020 study by Pew Research, Americans age 60 and older are far more likely than their worldwide counterparts to live alone. In the U.S., 27 percent of people 60 and older are living solo, compared with an average of just 16 percent worldwide. Based on Census data, that’s almost 14 million seniors. And while the majority of them are women (since women generally outlive men) a sizeable number of these “solo agers” are men who may find themselves particularly ill-equipped for life alone.
That’s why our attention was drawn to this recent article from NextAvenue in which Atlanta-based clinical psychologist Jackson Rainer writes about his own journey as a solo ager. He also shares some important advice for senior men who are widowed, divorced, or otherwise facing life all by themselves.
Living Alone Carries Unique Risks
Rainer’s article certainly isn’t some “woe is me” essay – in fact, far from it. “I am euphemistically known as a ‘solo ager,’” he begins – “a 66-year-old child-free widower with no plans to seek another primary intimate monogamous relationship.” He writes that he’s not too fond of the term “solo ager” but definitely prefers it to “the horrible designation made by other social scientists who refer to me as an ‘elder orphan,’” a phrase he says conjures up feelings of abandonment and fear.
“I am certainly not orphaned,” Rainer asserts. “I am well loved by others, continue to be involved as a psychologist in meaningful professional work and live independently. I feel vital in my activities of daily living and am as busy as I want.” However, his article comes with an important caveat, even for men who, like Rainer, seem to be doing find on their own. “It is a truth that I am existentially and observably alone as I live into this stage of life,” he writes. “This alone-ness carries unique risks for those in my cohort.”
Men Find it Challenging to Be Vulnerable
Rainer observes that the topic of solo aging is currently getting a lot of attention, especially as the oldest baby boomers are sailing past age 75. “Themes abound for connecting to others and making personal wishes, including legal and financial directives, formal and concrete,” he writes. Unfortunately, he suggests, many men tend to ignore even such good advice. “Much of it tends to go in one eye and out the other as I, and many men of my generation, view such guidelines through a traditional male lens.”
Rainer lists a few typically male responses that made us chuckle. “Men of my ilk were taught from an early age never to admit vulnerability or to ask for help,” he writes. “So, we don’t. We were taught to figure out problems independently or be humiliated.” His examples:
- Am I sick? “If I’m not feeling better tomorrow, I’ll go to urgent care.”
- Am I lost? “I can’t be far from where I’m going. I don’t need the GPS. Let me try this turn.”
- Do I need help carrying my groceries to the car? “It’s just a sprained ankle. I can get this.”
- Am I lonesome? “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
We have to admit that this is a problem for many men we know. Rainer’s words ring true. “As men,” he writes, “we would rather stand naked in rush hour traffic than risk the exposure of not knowing, or worse, being seen as weak and culpable for perceived fragility.” This behavior might be amusing, but there’s a dark side. “This type of traditional masculine maneuvering is potentially dangerous territory, particularly on the heels of the pandemic,” Rainer warns.
Most Men are Lonelier Than They Care to Admit
Rainer suggests that the problem of isolation among older men is very, very real. “Most of us are feeling lonelier and more isolated than we are willing to admit,” he writes. “Our support systems have been disrupted, our health challenged and any sense of a normative rhythm upended in ways unknown during our lifetimes.” Fortunately, he offers three suggestions he thinks can help mitigate the challenges of going it alone and allow you to experience solo aging successfully.
Suggestion #1: While You Are Healthy, Make Plans
The first step represents sound, basic advice that can help any solo ager, man or woman, feel more in control of their circumstances. “Complete advance directives and designate a trusted health care proxy,” Rainer advises. “Spell out personal wishes regarding medical treatment. Grant someone the power of attorney to handle legal and financial matters should the need arise. Inform those close to you about your designate to ensure as little misunderstanding as possible in the event of a crisis or emergency.”
Rainer also advises a talk with an elder care financial planner, and we strongly agree. He cites recent studies revealing that more than 40 percent of single men and half of single women say they feel a moderate-to-high level of anxiety about their personal financial security. His advice is to have your planner help put together what he calls “a reasonable plan for managing money and financial resources, including considerations for long-term care.” That’s exactly what a financial dashboard can do for you. Rainer’s advice here seems spot on.
Suggestion #2: Go Toward Others
Rainer warns against the perils of isolation. “Social science tells us there is great benefit in being social as we age,” he writes. This is especially true on the heels of the damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic to our collective sense of security. But even apart from the pandemic, loneliness has been shown to be as significant a cause of early death as obesity.
Unfortunately, this is an area where men have a serious problem. “We men are notorious for waiting for others to contact and recruit us into social activities,” says Rainer. “Such a stance never, never, never works.” The more we men sit on the sidelines waiting for someone else to take the next step, the more we experience disappointment, isolation, cynicism and contempt.
“A male solo ager is entirely responsible for his social life,” Rainer says. “Guys must be friendly to have friends.” You might have to change your living arrangement, perhaps choosing a 55-plus retirement community or a neighborhood that’s more walkable. You might also want to look into the Village to Village Network which connects members to “a full range of practical support services to help with non-medical household tasks, services, programs, and transportation.” The main thing is not to remain isolated, or your health could suffer.
Suggestion #3: Get Busy. Stay Physically Active
This ties in with other articles on the AgingOptions blog about the importance of work, especially to men. “A major contributor to isolation and adverse aging is found in the loss of a schedule,” Rainer writes. “Particularly for men, we rely on the identity that work provides. Typically, we are known for what we do. Our work identity provides meaning and accountability.”
After retirement, we undergo a profound change in our identity, he says. “We shift into being known for who we are. This ‘hard right turn’ from what we do to who we are is enhanced by routine rhythms of planned activities which contribute to ordinary vitality.” In other words, it becomes essential that we incorporate regular physical activity in our routines. “Research confirms that when physical exercise and social activities are combined, overall psychological health is amplified,” Rainer writes.
Rainer offers a hopeful conclusion. “Looking ahead,” he says, “allowing room for help, and seeking the companionship of others are keys to going it alone with integrity. Does it solve all the loneliness encountered as a solo ager? Certainly not, but it does keep us in in charge of what is manageable as we grow older.”
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)