According to recent research, there are over 12 million older adults living alone in the United States, and 69% of them are women. Even in Paris, the city of love, there are millions living with chronic aloneness. In the UK, a 25% increase in the number of people living alone is expected in the next 25 years. This is by no means an American problem, but rather a Western problem. The consequences of so many people living alone can be deadly. My cousin and I used to joke about how long it would take for someone to find out rotting bodies in our apartments. It’s not really funny; finding rotting corpses of older folks is not uncommon. This article suggests that simply keeping in touch with friends or relatives is the solution to avoiding that fate. Gee, I’d never thought of that <insert skull-banging eye roll here>. But whose job is it to keep that connection viable? And when are efforts at keeping in touch with someone who doesn’t bother to do the same just too much to bear?
There are many reasons that so many older women find themselves alone, but most never imagined they would end up alone when they were younger. They were married, had kids, pursued careers. Like me, many were surrounded by people their entire lives. Then the kids grew up and moved away, they divorced or their spouses died, those that worked retired from their jobs, and now they live alone. Often they’ve had to move from their neighborhoods because they couldn’t afford the large family house any more, so now they don’t know their neighbors. Though I am younger than many at age 53, I am among them.
At one point I thought I’d never be alone. I longed to have a minute to myself when my daughter and the cat followed me everywhere, including to the bathroom. In my younger years, I was a serial monogamist – one guy after another, a few of whom I married. I couldn’t see then that I was actually afraid to be alone. Not only was there some trauma from childhood that I had not addressed during which I hid in closets, but I simply had never lived without other people. Perhaps it was by subconscious design that I went from one relationship to the next, avoiding being alone. It was also not a cultural norm when I was young for people to live alone; young people typically had roommates, middle-aged folks had families, and older folks lived with their kids and grandkids. That wasn’t a mandate but it was common. A second thought was never given to the fact that I didn’t ever live alone; most women of my era didn’t, or they had a place but their boyfriends slept over most nights.
Now, in my fifties, I have lived alone for over 6 years. I have become comfortable alone and that’s been a really great thing. Getting comfortable in my own skin was long overdue. But now I may have had a little too much of this good thing. I have not consistently dated during these years, though I did try for a brief time only to end up thinking what a hot mess it was to date at my age. Older men trying to impress me as if they were twenty-five, wanting sex on the first date, or alternatively revealing their neuroses in the first 15 minutes of conversation and sending me scrambling for the exit. They were alone for a reason, after all; most were divorced, rejected by other women. Better to be alone than stuck with a little boy in old man’s skin. No one ever died of being horny, after all, and there are tools for that, so there really is no need to seek male companionship. Nope, I thought, I will just work on building relationships with other women.
Interestingly, that has proven difficult, too. I noticed that I have become rather rigid, wanting things a certain way and feeling out of sorts when my routines are altered. I have observed this in the other single women-of-a-certain-age that I know, also. Whatever this is, this fear that keeps us locked into our solo comfort zones, it is keeping others like us locked out. While I can choose to push aside my comforts, to break my own routines for a day or a few to be with others, it is hard for two women who are both a bit stuck in their ways to spend much time together. We get on each other’s nerves. We long for the comfort of our solo spaces and routines, the ways we have learned to cope with our chronic aloneness. Think about “The Odd Couple” or “The Golden Girls” and you get the idea of how challenging it is for older folks to live together. These shows were so hilarious because they were so very spot on. No one makes a show about older people living alone because no one wants to face this growing trend. Better we just laugh at how difficult it is to live together and leave it at that.
For me, there is a certain shame attached to my chronic aloneness, the thought that I have failed somehow and that’s why I am alone. My logical mind knows this is not true, but my feelings say it might be. I don’t want to be a burden to my friends and family whom I imagine are very busy with their other friends and family. Most of the time, they are indeed busy with others, at least to an extent that removes them from the “chronically alone” category. A brief visit with my sister at the holidays illustrated that, despite our very different younger lives, we have both ended up in the same place – chronically alone. My sister is looking forward to babysitting her now-expected grandchild.; that ship has sailed for me.
When I broached the subject of chronic aloneness with one of my so-called friends a few months ago, she told me that she knows exactly how I feel, that she spends a lot of time alone, too. Her social media page belies her claim, providing evidence of travels with others and weekends away. They may not be frequent, but for me such outings are nonexistent. I think for her, ‘alone’ means no man in her life. That’s not what it is for me at all. I am aware that she is still surrounded by people and that her son lives at home. Really, she has no idea what I am talking about. She may eventually, but for today she lives in a different world.
I don’t think it’s so much about age as it is about how we adapt to being alone for long periods of time. It’s not healthy for humans to live in chronic aloneness. I see this phenomenon happening with younger people, too, in our increasingly isolated society. Working and attending school from home via the internet bring with them many opportunities, but they can also inadvertently cause isolation. Humans are unquestionably social animals, even the shyest among us has a need for some contact with others. When we are young, we are conditioned to always having others around – parents, siblings, classmates, teachers, etc. In college, we share a dorm room or an off-campus apartment. We have study groups. Then we go to work and, though we may live alone, we socialize with our co-workers and college friends after hours. At some point the young adults couple up, many having children. Anyone who does not find a mate, any couples who do not have children, or anyone whose relationships don’t last like me, will find that their social circle has greatly diminished.
“Sex and the City” portrayed this glamorous life in which four women remained close friends through all those changes. The reality is that it seldom works that way. Couples socialize with couples, singles strive to become couples, and those who find themselves alone are usually really alone. Alone with Chinese food on New Year’s Eve (my fellow “Sex and the City” devotees will recognize this line, though unlike Miranda in the movie, Carrie will not get out of bed, put on her faux fur coat with her pajamas, and take the subway across town in a snow storm to be with you – you are really alone). Forget about a romantic love interest; we fantasize about our friends rescuing us from our aloneness.
Like me, many singles look forward to going to work to break up the aloneness. We live for the work week while couples and parents live for the weekends. My bar for companionship has slowly lowered over the decades from ‘love of my life and best friend’ to ‘lover’ to ‘friend’ to ‘interesting dinner companion’ to ‘another human being’ to ‘any sentient being.’ My dogs are now quite literally the center of my daily universe, my companions, the only breathing things I can count on to keep me company. And it turns out that they have their own degree of rigidity, clinging to their preferred routines and requiring me to timely accommodate their demands, lest they show me – on the rug – what they think of my schedule deviation. They also don’t really care for me being around in the middle of the day. That’s their time and I’m supposed to be at work or school. Anyplace but here. So despite living alone, I am sometimes still not welcome at home. Little assholes.
I am sure I will have more to say on this issue of the growing isolation in western cultures, but for today I just wanted to mention it, maybe spur you to think a bit about your co-workers, neighbors, and relatives. If they aren’t sharing stories about the movies they’ve seen lately or the trip they took or the fun they had over the weekend, it’s probably because they didn’t do any of that. I used to take myself out to lunch or dinner, or take solo road trips, or go to the theater. Over time, all of that became less frequent because there is nothing like being in a crowded room to emphasize your aloneness. About as far as I go now is a long walk with the dogs. Some days I take my laptop to the coffee shop and spend an hour or so watching people out of the corner of my eye while half-heartedly writing a blog post.
My point is, if it seems like people are chronically alone they probably are. While alone doesn’t necessarily mean lonely, being alone every day is not easy. It changes you. In my case, I don’t want to have a roommate or be with people all the time. I like living alone. But I would adore the opportunity to have a meal once in a while with some friendly faces. It really doesn’t take much to move the needle on my aloneness gauge from lonely to merely living alone. For those wanting to help their friends like me who live alone, it does not have to be a huge investment of your time. If you want to hedge your bets that you won’t end up chronically, unhappily alone yourself, you might want to make friends with one or two of us single people so you have someone to call when you are lonely. We know exactly what it’s like.
And for any friends who read this and are inclined to think I’m having some sort of mental health crisis, I’m not. I’m doing what emotionally healthy people do: I’m expressing myself and facing my pain. It will pass. You could make time for me once in a while, though. It wouldn’t kill you to dial my number.
“Unacknowledged and unheard pain doesn’t go away. The way to survive grief is by allowing pain to exist, not in trying to cover it up or rush through it.”
– Megan Devine, author of “It’s OK That You’re Not OK”