Tuesday, February 23, 2016

LIving Alone in Retirement............Getting Rid of Myths and Misconceptions

One of the issues I am constantly asked to write about is being alone in retirement, and I know I don't address it enough. I am trying to change that in some way in the new year.

There is not a great deal of info out there about or for single retirees that is positive, I sometimes think.  Oh sure, there are articles on where to live to meet the opposite sex, how not to be depressed about living alone, or how those of us living alone are financially more at risk. Basically, living alone is a "bad thing", but we can learn to make the best of it if we work at it  The idea that some of us may choose to live alone (not just in retirement, a huge percentage of Americans live alone and are single) seems to be out of the norm. Heck, I found an article by one woman that said that living alone was the worst retirement choice I could make. 

Fortunately there are other voices out there here and there. Fellow blogger Jean for example regularly talks about living alone from a variety of aspects: finding a social balance, managing home improvements and a garden as a single person, cooking for one and more, such as this article about a single woman's Christmas!

When I was in Texas, I was single and alone  in my home for much of the time I lived there. I also married very late, and lived completely alone by choice for many years after school. It must run in the family-my daughter would rather have lived alone in a loft apartment than share a two bedroom two bath boutique apartment with a friend-she was single until she met her life partner. 

In fact, one of my hesitations about my current situation was the sharing a home part. The reason I "rent" is that I was unwilling to make a commitment to this lifestyle or location for more than three years. The reason it works is that the person I share my home with is only here on the weekends and we spend perhaps and hour together in the evening. When we are both no longer working and home full time, I expect we both may need to re-evaluate.

The bottom line is that many people (retirees included) choose to live alone, and are happy and content with that choice.  While I could write and write about this topic and will for sure, there are a few misconceptions that seem to be constant.  For example:

Alone is not lonely. And grief or missing a late spouse is not the same as lonely. I could not sleep without a dog on either side of me for years after my husband died, and as recently as a year or so ago, I called my son by my husband's first name. That is not the same thing. More important, early on in my widowhood I felt lonely most often when I was in a group of people. Alone is simply a descriptive, meaning there are no people around.

Single women in retirement are probably not looking for a partner. Most of what I've written here has to do with both men and women, but single male retirees are much quicker to jump into, and to search for, a new relationship. Retired men seem to need a partner more than retired women. I suspect that may have to do with the fact that women are generally the social networkers in a marriage and widowed males have more difficulty with that, but I honestly don't know. I enjoy socializing with all ages and with all genders and look forward to friends of the male persuasion in the future and maybe, possibly, something else. I am not looking to get married again, and do not miss that kind of relationship. Most single retired men and women I know feel the same way.

We don't need kids or spouses to care for us in our "old age".  Whether we have kids or not, whether we have a spouse or not, we can generally manage to plan for our later years. We have extended family, we have social connections, we make our own "circles" of close friends. Kinda like that women's group in Texas I've mentioned before.

Living alone does not suddenly turn you into that "cat lady/guy".  I am a lousy housekeeper. But you know what? I was not the greatest housekeeper when I was married and/or working. I do the basics of vacuuming,  keeping up the kitchen and bathroom. I only vacuum twice a week and I have two dogs.  That was true long before I was single. Even alone, I eat at the dinner table or at the TV stand. I wake up late and don't get dressed right away, but I did that before retirement. I make my bed and I shower, and I have not turned into a hoarder at any time while living alone.

On the other hand, if I want to leave the dishes in the sink and read one night, I can do so. When you live alone, you make the rules-all of them. That includes bed times, dinner times and more. I know a single male retiree who will tell you frankly that he leaves the toilet seat up, almost all the time. And while I don't sit and eat a container of ice cream in front of the TV, if I want to have popcorn and veggies and dip for dinner because I had a huge lunch, well, so be it.

People who live alone do not necessarily have less of a social life. Obviously that depends. Many single retirees remain that way because the like more than the average amount of solitude (the chance to quilt and draw all day without talking to a human does not seem like a punishment to me). Most of us make the level of connections and social activity that works for us. Admittedly I have been known to deliberately schedule something to force myself out of the house, but that's because I'm one of those people that could sew and read for a couple days and then perk up and say "Oh, gee, I haven't spoken to anyone but the dogs in two days". A very social butterfly will either fill his calendar, or maybe even not live alone.

People concentrate too much on the money thing. I don't want to make light of this issue, don't get me wrong. But first, it's systematic and not just a retiree issue. Women make less. Single women make less than single men, but single men (retired or not,) face the same financial stigma of paying more for living alone.  And second, not as many people may be living on "half" as we may think. I, for example, was a stay at home wife for most of my marriage. If my husband were still living, in theory we would be pulling in two social security checks. The truth is though, that my social security check would be so minute, it probably would not have paid for an annual vacation.

It is true that singles can pay more for many things. Shopping for food for one can be expensive if you don't cook for two or more and freeze it. The per person cost in a home for utilities is obviously more for one than if you divided by two-but again, that assumes every marriage is bringing in two retirement checks, which I can assure you is often not true.  And although I am severely handicapped, and choose not to do certain things, I can do many home improvements without paying for them. Singles can still shop in bulk in grocery stores, and many stores now provide single style servings of things that are not a major cost difference in the long haul. I have a very low grocery bill, and regularly buy the little containers of fruit near the front of the store, and small containers of milk.

You don't need to feel sorry for a single person you see traveling/eating/entertaining alone. A year ago I agreed to go on a road trip from Denver to Seattle via Arches National Park, Salt Lake City and other environs. Because my sister is still working and has to take "vacation", she ended up flying home. Since she did not want me to be alone, she suggested we rent a car for the trip, and I fly back with her. When I flatly refused, she said "But you'll be doing all that driving home by yourself". To which I responded, "That is exactly the point!". After dropping her off at the airport, I enjoyed a three day drive through eastern Washington and the Idaho mountains. Afterwards I drove through Montana (the absolutely most beautiful place I have experienced inland in my life was in western Montana), and then ended up driving south through Wyoming and back to Colorado. If we are single and traveling or in a restaurant, it is most likely by choice. There are too many options for groups, friends and other alternatives.

For those who have not always been single, there are ways to prepare for that event, contrary to common belief. Of those folks who have adjusted and embraced living alone the most, almost all of them have marriages where there was a great deal of "space" and independence. I married late, and my husband and I each had our own interests. Some of which we shared and some of which we did not. He went on long week and one week ski and golf vacations without me. I went on quilting retreats and "girl' travel weekends without him. I have always, always walked and done exercise alone. I looked at the three day boy scout camping trip as a blessing and locked myself in the house. And no matter how small our homes were (and some of them were darned small), we always managed to have our own spaces somehow that were separate and apart-even if it meant using closets and at one point briefly making our ten year old girl and newborn baby boy share a hugely large bedroom so I could have the other one as a studio.

There can be disadvantages to living alone, just as in any lifestyle. I promise to blog about those as well. Hopefully I can be as honest about the downs as the ups, as nothing is perfect in life.

Lately in my personal life the disadvantages seem more pesky than serious. Some times we have to force ourselves out into the proverbial world, and since we don't have a live in social network, we have to build one of our own. Without sounding too much like a girly-girl, killing spiders on my own is not my favorite thing. And as someone who cannot go up a step ladder of any height, I used to have nightmares about a smoke alarm shorting out at night and my not being able to find it or pull it out (while my terrified dogs are hiding under the bed and crying at every high pitched squeak).

In my experience though, most people who live alone (and about thirty percent of retirees live alone) do so by choice, and are happy and content where they are in life-for now.


  1. This is the most important article on retirement I've seen in a long time. As a male, I realize I am ill-equipped to live on my own. But the actuaries say I don't have to worry about it, since women live three or four years longer than men (and B will likely live as long as her mother, who's right now pushing 100). On the whole, though, if I had a choice, I'd rather be alone than dead. That being said, however, I'm not sure how I feel knowing that I can be replaced by a dog!

  2. Barb, I agree with all of your points. Alone is not lonely; I have felt lonelier in a crowd or with a partner, than I do when I am alone. In my previous married life with a child at home, it was harder to find solitude than it is now, while living alone, to find company. I look at my married/partnered cohort and can honestly say that I do not wish for what they have. I travel alone and I will request a table for one. I have the privilege of setting my own schedule, managing my own finances and planning my own menu. Like so many things in life, living alone is both a privilege and a responsibility with advantages and disadvantages.

  3. I see a downside on living alone as we age in that you may begin to decline physically or mentally and not notice it. Your doctor may not notice it. But if you see a loving family member on a regular basis, they may be brave enough to point it out.

    1. I absolutely agree. I am blessed with close church friends, children who keep in contact and friend who would not be afraid to speak up and/or contact a family member if concerned.

  4. My mom has lived alone for 20 years now and loves it. My husband used to travel weeks at a time and I loved being alone. I still send him away some weekends just to get that alone time again. I know for certain if anything were to happen to him I would be content with my own company (and the dogs and cat of course).

    1. Ah yes, the dogs. My thirty something daughter lived with me briefly a few years ago when she was apartment hunting after living in the Cayman Islands. She used to tell me she could not believe that I had complete conversations with my beagles. Of course now she and her spouse have two canines and they do the same thing - without being single!

  5. I agree with much of what you've written about living alone. There is a significant difference between being alone and feeling lonely -- rarely that I ever feel the latter. I generally haven't found going out alone, including to restaurants an unwelcome experience. There are instances at home or elsewhere when I felt prompted to share an observation with someone else, but later may email to others. I've previously occasionally written about this topic and my experiences.

    One thing I have discovered since I more or less retired a couple years ago, though I became a widow years earlier, efforts to establish new compatible friendships can be more difficult for older people. Numerous commenters have written about experiencing the same. Participation in new interest groups has been only that, as there is no socialization outside of meetings since others already have their established circles. Some of us may have few family living and they're across the continent. Contemporary, younger and older friends may have moved away or died. Life being a caregiver may not have allowed for socialization time. The point is that the older woman or man being alone experience can be very varied and what seem to be simple solutions on how to adapt may be more complicated than one might think. That said, I'm very content with my situation though it hasn't been quite what I once thought it would be when I was in my fifties or sixties.

    Currently I'm exploring and recently wrote about a local village concept designed to help older residents remain living independently in their homes -- living in place, which has been my intent.

    I'll enjoy continuing to read what you write here and was pleased to find the link at Sightings Over Sixty.

    1. I'm so happy to have glanced at your blog and will check it out more. I do agree that it is more difficult to make friends later on. One of friends in my women's group told me that if I did not move now, I would have even more difficulty making friends. I think that those who are widowed or single and stay in place have more opportunities than those of us who move in retirement, but that's a married and single issue, not just a single issue. I also think that making time to make serious, non work friends during the working years is one of the major steps to a successful retirement as well. People who get all their socialization through a spouse or through work seem to have a much harder time later on.

      But I'll be writing more about this as well.

  6. Excellent overview, Barbara, of an important subject. Your perspective as both a married and a single woman gives you insights that I hope all singles, both women and me, read. Many of us are destined to be alone at some point. How we respond will shape some portion of our lives.

  7. Very well stated. I live alone and am retired. I am rarely bored but sometimes I am. I am rarely lonely but sometimes I am. I am mostly happy with the choices I made and I know that I can change my mind at any time and it will not affect anyone but me.

  8. Hi Barbara! I popped over here after reading Tom Sightings post about your post and and even though I'm married, I know that all of us need to consider the possibility of being "alone" in retirement. I personally feel, like you I believe, that being alone is far better than being with the wrong person, that being alone doesn't mean being lonely and that the "money" issue isn't always as important as the "media" would have us believe it. Good for you for finding your way in all of this and for sharing what you've learned with others. ~Kathy

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