It's amazing sometimes how readers' thoughts parallel mine. With the intention of writing about it soon, last week I made some notes about getting old as a single person versus as part of a couple. Lo – the next morning, Tarzana left this note on my most recent riff on the fear of getting old.
“Ronni, I get a tiny bit envious of your freedom to live your own life without factoring in someone else's agenda. Of course, there are those who appreciate having company on the journey. Perhaps the issues of partnered aging/solo aging could be hashed over in this space someday.”
A few minutes later, Genie followed up:
“I think Tarzana has a point. Balancing someone else's agenda with our own needs can be rewarding but it is not always easy.”
I feel both ways: sometimes I'm envious of people who have a partner and other times I'm relieved that I'm single.
In 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 29.6 percent of people 65 and older – 11.7 million of us - were living alone. The majority, 6.5 million, are women, mostly widows. Elder men who live alone are often widowed too, but they are more likely than women to be divorced or never married. Of course, the percentage of single elders increases when older groups – 75 and older, 80 and older, etc. - are considered, as spouses die.
It is conventional wisdom that throughout life couples are better off than singles, and the medical community mostly agrees. Research studies going back as far as 150 years support the health and well-being benefits of marriage, speculating on the existence of a “marriage advantage” - that married people apparently suffer less pneumonia, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, etc. and therefore live longer than single people, they say.
But according to The New York Times, there is a glitch in that long-held belief. A recent study of 9,000 people in their 50s and 60s found that when formerly married people became single through divorce or widowhood, “they suffered a decline in physical health from which they never fully recovered.”
And further – a new discovery:
“...people who had divorced or been widowed had worse health problems than men and women who had been single their entire lives. In formerly married individuals, it was as if the marriage advantage had never existed.”
For several reasons, I think statistics about wellness, disease and marital status are inherently flawed and I don't necessarily accept any of them. However, the larger difficulty is that married and single people are pitted against one another in the health sweepstakes.
Much more interesting (and, of course, hard to quantify so ignored by researchers) is nature and inclination in our living preferences, and how those might change with events and experience as we get older.
In the 55 years since I left home, I have been partnered in only 10 of them. My six-year marriage was in trouble from the beginning. A later live-in relationship was much better and although I couldn't explain at the time why I left after four years, I think now it was because I prefer living alone.
Tarzana and Genie referred to my ability, as a single, to live without consideration of another person's agenda. You bet. I never understood, in my marriage and second relationship, how much I owed to togetherness and how to behave in that regard.
Could I have a drink with a friend after work without checking in? What if I wasn't hungry tonight, but it was our custom that I cook dinner? When I went out for a walk or shopping, was I required to tell him when I would be home?
(Understand I say that with the firm belief, too, that in all living-together situations - parent/child, unrelated roommates, committed couples, even house guests – each person has the obligation to let the other know when he or she will be late so no one worries.)
Marriage seemed to eliminate spontaneity and since I have trouble committing to anything farther into the future than two or three days, that was a constant problem – what were those boundaries? What were my decisions and which ones had to be shared? Certainly my move from Maine to Oregon could not have happened with such ease if there had been another person to consult on every decision.
Also, when I come home, aside from greeting the cat who requires no conversation, I am almost always glad I don't need to make polite conversation. That applies to first thing in the morning too.
Obviously, it is in my nature to be comfortable alone. Certainly, other people (most people?) are as naturally inclined for togetherness. Listen to what Elizabeth Rogers wrote here last week:
“As far as traveling solo through aging, again speaking strictly for myself, I'm so grateful that I haven't had to face that to date. I truly can't imagine life without my wonderful, understanding, kind, patient husband who actually continues to put up with me after 32 years. He's also my guide to the increasingly complex world of technology - even at 80, he understands it better than I ever will.”
A part of me would like to know what it is like to have been married and gone through life – 40, 50 and more years – with the same person, surviving and thriving through the ups and down, triumphs and tragedies, good times and bad.
Too late now at age 69.
There are times I wish there were someone else here. Someone, for example, to turn to when I've read something interesting or funny or strange and say, “Wait til you hear this...”
It's unlikely to happen at my age, but I can imagine having that again – along with the parts that would annoy me. Or, maybe I'm more tolerant in my old age. I'll probably never know and that's all right with me.
We all do the best we can, I think, with the choices we make and the curves life throws us. How are you doing?
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, A. Peri: When I'm Gone