Thursday, February 26, 2015

Living Alone

I didn’t just say, “Wow! Is this what it’s like?” It has turned out to be good, at least for the last six years. Being the queen of my castle is good.  It is good because of a variety of favorable circumstances for which I can thank God, my family, and a long list of positive circumstances. A younger person is likely to see life alone differently, as my single daughters might attest, but these views are mine.

I never lived alone until I was about fifty years old. I went from cradle to wedding in the company of other room-mates, first at home and then at the university. In 1990, after my older kids had left the nest and I had become a librarian, six months at a new job in a new city were wonderful, but I knew the experience was temporary. The family arrived as soon as daughter Elizabeth finished high school in Green Bay as valedictorian. Rick and daughter Sarah then came and I wasn’t living alone any more. Going solo again about twenty-five years later as a widow is a different experience.

I sat down and in fifteen minutes had an impressive non-sociological list of things that make living alone in retirement enjoyable or abominable. Then I classified the items on the list as favorable, unfavorable, or neither. I landed clearly on the favorable side. Some people I know are not as fortunate.

I had a lady friend, who was blind and lived alone, whose daily prayer was, “Thank you, God, for this day, and I hope you’ll give me another one.” It’s a beautiful thought. (Her days finally ran out.) Another friend’s daily prayer was, “Here it is, God. Do something with it.” That became my daily prayer. It’s good to go through life with hints from others.

My list of circumstances and activities that make living alone in retirement favorable includes (not in order of importance): family nearby; social connections; enough income to cover modest expenses until catastrophe arrives; faith and church; good health; volunteer obligations in the community; interests and activities, including computer, social media, games, friends at places like the senior center; convenient transportation such as a car, cooking my own food, painting, reading, blogging, thinking, meditating, watching the news (staying involved with current events), and having a cat. It works for me.

My maternal grandmother, whom we called Sweetie Pie, lived alone most of her life without the husband who had left her when my mother was little. When I was growing up, I never thought she was doing anything unusual or unfulfilling. It seemed to me that she lived a good life as an attractive woman whose life seemed to me to be about her job in the music store and the men she dated but didn’t marry. When she became old, my parents moved her to Sturgeon Bay to be near us. I think she was lonely in a new city with few friends. She had family nearby but was alone a lot. She never learned to drive a car. Then she got dementia and her life narrowed more. The local police occasionally drove her home when she forgot where she was. Life changes with age.

My list of unfavorable things in some ways is the other side of the good things. Life can become unpleasant. Here is the list of things that I think are the downsides of living alone at any age: poverty; no social or family connections; isolation; illness, disease or depression; grieving about a lost loved one; disabilities; poor transportation; few interests; need for personal care; no faith community.

A few days ago I saw a program about Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the sixteenth President, and she had a difficult time after her husband was assassinated. She was unhappy in her loneliness. She had endured the death of her husband and all her children except her son Robert, and was alone. Not everyone today must deal with as much death as she did, but unhappiness can make living alone a miserable experience.

The third category on my list includes things like the lifetime influence of one’s family;  marriage that might or might not have been good; the government safety net including medical insurance and food stamps; poor transportation opportunities; the personality of the person; gender differences (I don’t speak for men who are alone); and life events.

I spend time at the Madison Senior Center, where I interact with women and men who are lively and connected. Some of them volunteer in the community. Others come for programs. A number come in for daily lunch, some of whom are fragile and need the service. Some live alone, but they don’t wear labels to announce it.  I spend time in activities at my church, where people are engaged or in need, and many are my age. We have our share of widows who live alone.

I don’t spend a lot of time doing the things that young people who live alone do. That’s a story for them to tell.