Friday, 24 February 2012
Elders Living Alone
There was a lot of response yesterday at The New York Times about the living alone story where I was mentioned and many commenters there said that none of us who were interviewed were particularly “quirky” as the headline claims.
They are correct but the difficulty lies with the headline writer trying to make the story “sexier” than it is and failing. Other than that distraction, I enjoyed reading about the other people in the story and the responses in the comments. Oh, wait. I do want to call out the ageism of a Times reader named Shannon from Raleigh, North Carolina who wrote,
“For the 70-year-old lady, forgetting to close the bathroom door when she has guests over seems to be a product of old age, not living alone. I would die of embarrassment.”
First, I do not “forget” to close the bathroom door. It's a choice; I don't see the point of closing it when I'm home alone. But always, in our culture, anything slightly out of the ordinary in old people is identified up as a failing. Shannon's assumption is that I leave the bathroom door open because I'm stupid, demented or at best, addled just because of my age. I'm so tired of this kind of stuff.
But that's not why I'm here today.
It was nice, as Susan Pope noted in a comment yesterday, for a 70-year-old to be included in a story with younger adults because we share an attribute, living alone, that is unrelated to age. It is a rare occurrence in human interest stories to include an elder in the sampling of examples and the writer, Steven Kurutz, is to be complimented for doing so.
There is, however, an aspect of living alone that did not pertain to his story and I would like to follow up on with you: in old age, we are more likely than young and mid-age people to be forced into single living after the kids are grown and/or a spouse dies.
If in our youth or mid-years we become single, most of us expect to find another permanent relationship, and many do. But when it happens after 60 or 70, it is usual for the majority, especially women, to be single until we die.
Widows and widowers come in all flavors. After a lifetime of daily shared experience, some have a terrible time overcoming newfound loneliness. But there have been more than a few, too, who have told me that as much as they loved their spouses, they are happy have these alone years and relish being on their own.
Happiness can't be generalized. What works for me, won't for you and it will be entirely different for others. I not only tolerate a lot of time alone, I crave it. Always have. When too many social engagements get crammed together in a short space of time, I get cranky and seek out quiet places where I can be by myself.
On the other hand, when friends come to stay, for a few days or a few weeks, I enjoy every minute of it. It is a precious gift to spend enough time together to relax into comfortable camaraderie and not rush through our stories and expand our understanding of one another.
Their visits are never a burden partly, I suspect, because even with long visits, the end point is known and then I like being alone again when the time comes.
On the other hand, I know people who love to have lots of people and lots of noise around all the time. It would drive me crazy but they thrive on it.
So, when we are young, such people might be stuck alone in between relationships but they can probably count on finding another loving companion to share a home with.
At our ages, we probably cannot. For me, I have no doubt that if I did find myself sharing living space again – either romantically or as a roommate – I would adapt without much fuss. (Yes, I'd learn to close the bathroom door again.) Others might not feel that way.
As Steven Kurutz noted in his Times story, one-quarter of Americans overall now live alone. That percentage is, necessarily, much higher for elders and this post barely touches on many points we might want to discuss about living alone at our age.
So how about you? If you live alone, do you like it? Do you indulge in ways you would not if you did not live alone? What's good and what's not about it?
If you are married, what do you make of all this living alone chitchat? Do you ever envy us? Do you think we're being silly when we cling to our "quirks"? Or...
Oh, wait. One more thing: The terrific, young woman, Leah Nash, who photographed me for the Times, sold me the rights to a different shot from the session which I've used for a new, updated photo in the TimeGoesBy banner above. I'm much happier with this new one.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today – Jeanne Waite Follett: Sunshine Chimera