3 steps men can take to stay connected, be prepared and fight loneliness
I am euphemistically known as a “solo ager,” a 66-year-old child-free widower with no plans to seek another primary intimate monogamous relationship. I must admit that the term “solo ager” is preferable to the horrible designation made by other social scientists who refer to me as an “elder orphan.” That phrase reeks of an aging Oliver Twist, developmentally frozen in the pain of abandonment and fear.
I am certainly not orphaned. I am well loved by others, continue to be involved as a psychologist in meaningful professional work and live independently. I feel vital in my activities of daily living and am as busy as I want. That said, it is a truth that I am existentially and observably alone as I live into this stage of life. This alone-ness carries unique risks for those in my cohort.
It’s Challenging for Men to Be Vulnerable
A good deal of consideration is currently being given to solo aging. Themes abound for connecting to others and making personal wishes, including legal and financial directives, formal and concrete. While good advice, much of it tends to go in one eye and out the other as I, and many men of my generation, view such guidelines through a traditional male lens.
Men of my ilk were taught from an early age never to admit vulnerability or to ask for help. So, we don’t.
We were taught to figure out problems independently or be humiliated:
Am I sick? “If I’m not feeling better tomorrow, I’ll go to urgent care.”
Am I lost? “I can’t be far from where I’m going. I don’t need the GPS. Let me try this turn.”
Do I need help carrying my groceries to the car? “It’s just a sprained ankle. I can get this.”
Am I lonesome? “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
As men, we would rather stand naked in rush hour traffic than risk the exposure of not knowing, or worse, being seen as weak and culpable for perceived fragility.
This type of traditional masculine maneuvering is potentially dangerous territory, particularly on the heels of the pandemic.
Most of us are feeling lonelier and more isolated than we are willing to admit. Our support systems have been disrupted, our health challenged and any sense of a normative rhythm upended in ways unknown during our lifetimes.
Fortunately, there are social science directives, translated here in masculine frames of reference, that may be helpful to mitigate the challenges of going it alone.
3 Steps for Successful Solo Aging
1. While You Are Healthy, Make Plans.
Complete advance directives and designate a trusted health care proxy. Spell out personal wishes regarding medical treatment. Grant someone the power of attorney to handle legal and financial matters should the need arise. Inform those close to you about your designate to ensure as little misunderstanding as possible in the event of a crisis or emergency.
Talk to an elder care financial planner. A 2020 study from Northwestern Mutual reports that “Overall, single men and women are generally less satisfied with their financial circumstances than married Americans. More than four in ten single men and half of single women say they feel either a moderate or a high level of anxiety about their personal financial security.”
Rely on the professional to assist in formulating a reasonable plan for managing money and financial resources, including considerations for long-term care, however that might emerge.
2. GO TOWARD OTHERS.
Social science tells us there is great benefit in being social as we age. The impact of social distancing during the pandemic will be studied for years to come. Already, there is sound determination that the loss of broad interpersonal communities has undermined our collective sense of security and anchoring to day-to-day living.
The psychologist John Cacioppo, in his 2009 book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” reports that loneliness may have twice the impact on early death as obesity and is as damaging as disadvantaged socioeconomic status.
We men are notorious for waiting for others to contact and recruit us into social activities. Such a stance never, never, never works.
Perhaps that statement is unclear and bears repetition: Waiting for others never, never, never works.
When lonesome, sitting and waiting for others’ invitations breeds disappointment, isolation, cynicism and contempt. Social connection requires reaching out and intentionally moving toward desirable activities and people. When activities are fun and meaningful, most in the gathered group will be equally engaged, making for easier collegiality and companionship.
A male solo ager is entirely responsible for his social life. Guys must be friendly to have friends. This truth is easier for those, like me, who are extroverts. For those who are introverts, think carefully about living choices. Living alone in a family home may require an increased amount of solitary upkeep.
If there are adult children, remember they have their own urgent lives and may not be able to attend to elders with the frequency or intensity that a solo aging parent expects.
There are contemporary options for living at this stage of life, including 55-plus or retirement communities, walkable communities if driving is a challenge and village-to-village networks , which are grassroots organizations formed through a cadre of caring neighbors who want to change the paradigm of aging. Local villages connect members to a full range of practical support services to help with non-medical household tasks, services, programs, and transportation.
3. Get Busy. Stay Physically Active.
A major contributor to isolation and adverse aging is found in the loss of a schedule. Particularly for men, we rely on the identity that work provides. Typically, we are known for what we do. Our work identity provides meaning and accountability.
After retirement, there are new personal definitions to enhance our sense of self as we age. We shift into being known for who we are. This “hard right turn” from what we do to who we are is enhanced by routine rhythms of planned activities which contribute to ordinary vitality. Add regular physical activity and stay in motion. Research confirms that when physical exercise and social activities are combined, overall psychological health is amplified.
Looking ahead, allowing room for help, and seeking the companionship of others are keys to going it alone with integrity. Does it solve all the loneliness encountered as a solo ager? Certainly not, but it does keep us in in charge of what is manageable as we grow older.