Alone — but not lonely

For many of us, the idea of living alone one day – probably when we’re over 80 – may conjure up images of a lonely and depressed senior rocking in a chair with a cat curled up nearby while the seasons change outside the window. This stereotype is anything but reality for many older single Canadians. And according to StatsCan, the number of those 85 and older who are on their own has increased substantially over the years, from 25 per cent in 1985 to 38 per cent in 2001 for women, and from 16 per cent to 23 per cent for men. Single seniors living in their own homes today and really enjoying it are those who have the right attitude to make being on their own an experience that is anything but lonely.

When it comes to living single, there are differences in the experiences of the younger 50-plus and those in their 70s and 80s. “The younger senior is often a little more independent than the older senior and may even still be connected to the workforce. The younger senior is probably still driving and engaged with young grandchildren,” explains Heather MacLean-Meeks, a social worker with Third Age Outreach Program, which offers health promotion programs, workshops and iividual counselling for seniors in London, Ont. “The older senior’s life tends to become smaller as they age, due to the fact that they may no longer drive, their physical ability may be limited and, over the years, their social circle may have dwindled, with friends and family passing away. As a result, they may feel more isolated, and their ability to get out is less.”

It’s all about attitude
But for older seniors like Alice Thomason*, 81, of Uxbridge, Ont., none of this means life has to become boring or lonely. Married for 50 years to Harold, Thomason became a widow 11 years ago. “The living has to go on and the more active you are, the more go-getting you are, the better it will be living alone,” she says. Her datebook reads like that of someone decades younger. At 10 in the morning when this interview takes place, she’s already been up for hours and has prepared heaping plates of sandwiches to take to the hungry masses at a shuffleboard tournament at her church. It’s this active life that Thomason feels is the key to her happiness. “The best thing you can do is get out and volunteer. There’s lots to do. Don’t stay home and feel sorry for yourself,” she says.

For people — especially women — who have been married and then find themselves single either through death or divorce, the issue of self-esteem may need to be overcome. “Self-esteem is a huge issue because there is so much connected to that relationship and the role you played in that relationship,” explains MacLean-Meeks. “Very often, seniors were in traditional marriages where the wife had a very specific role, one of caring, helping and supporting her spouse. When that role no longer exists it brings into question, ‘Who am I? What’s my purpose?'” 

When Thomason found herself alone, the answer was to jump into helping others. “I have a cousin in town who is 93 years old, and I make sure to take her over two meals every week,” she says. Add to that her volunteer work with the hospital and community care, her weekly bingo game and her involvement with the church, and it’s become a regular occurrence for her kids to call and ask, “Mother, have you got a date for me this week?” If she has a day to herself, Thomason counts herself lucky, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I have wonderful neighbours and great friends. If you don’t make yourself part of your community and be with it, then you are out of it, you know? You have to make the effort,” Thomason advises.

Next page: If it doesn’t come easily, push yourself

If it doesn’t come easily, push yourself
While Thomason dove head first into single living, that’s not always the norm for those who find themselves suddenly alone. For Dave Love, 74, of London, Ont., being widowed plunged him into a life of being a self-described couch potato. After 46 years of marriage, three children and nursing his wife through a lengthy illness, he wasn’t prepared to be alone when she passed away in 1999. “The biggest adjustment for me was just the loss of companionship,” explains Love. “The TV and babysitting for my grandkids kept me going for three years, but I didn’t even want to go out.”

Women may be more apt to reach out to friends and family and work through the loneliness they are feeling, whereas men have a harder time talking it out and instead will look to activity-oriented ways of coping.

“Men don’t chum around the way women do,” says Love. “They’ve got friends but they don’t go to one another’s houses for coffee and talk. Men will get together and play snooker.” Neither coping strategy is a bad thing. “There is no right or wrong way in how people approach being single and try to integrate into a new way of life,” says MacLean-Meeks.

When Love finally decided to get out of the house, it was a result of his daughter’s prodding to volunteer. “I eventually went to volunteer at University Hospital in the emergency department,” says Love. “And I started going to the Kiwanis Club again. One of the ladies there kept encouraging me to come out to the Friday afternoon dance (something my wife and I enjoyed together before she became ill), and finally I went.” At the dance, Love met a lady who became his dance partner. Soon, they were regularly dancing at Kiwanis, the Legion and the Cherry Hill Mall seniors’ dances.

According to MacLean-Meeks, it’s encouragement seniors may need. “It’s very hard, but you have to push yourself,” she says. “When you are already feeling vulnerable and maybe have low self-esteem because you haven’t been doing these things for a while or you’ve been hurt through loss or divorce, you can be fearful of connecting or getting close to people again.”

One of the best things you can do, suggests MacLean-Meeks, is surround yourself with family and friends who will encourage you. Even if it’s your choice to live alone or you’ve lost a loved one due to death or divorce, being a single senior needs to be seen as an opportunity. It’s a chance to think about yourself exclusively. MacLean-Meeks advises reframing your life.

“Explore what you want your future to look like, and that can have all sorts of possibilities for people,” she says. “What are your dreams just for yourself?” She suggests making a list of all the activities you’ve always wanted to try or that you’ve given up but would like to get back to. Then make a list of your friends and family who may like to try them with you or who could be a good cheerleader to support you in sticking with it.

“My daughter thought I should get a hobby to fill my time,” says Love. “She suggested the hobby I had back when we lived in Ireland, which was electric trains. So now I’ve got quite the collection — and my grandkids love it.” 
The other activity Love does regularly is to attend his grandsons’ hockey and basketball games. Coupled with his weekly babysitting, he has developed a strong and important bond with his grandchildren and his daughter.

The fear factor
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is fear of being alone, according to MacLean-Meeks. A fear of the future can be practically immobilizing. “It’s very easy when you are alone to move into the ‘what-ifs?’ of the future, and it’s very hard to keep focused on the present and not get too far ahead of yourself,” she explains. When you’ve had someone else to be a sounding board or a partner for life decisions, the fear of making a mistake can be strong, but once you’ve done it a few times and learned that it’s okay to make mistakes (and the world won’t come crashing down), it will get easier. 

People who have always been on their own have usually developed a good sense of self but for someone who was part of a couple, the dreams of the future and aspirations were usually shared, and now you’re facing them on your own. “Being alone can be viewed as an opportunity to improve your self-esteem, especially if that’s always been an issue for you, by discovering your own strengths and interests and exploring them,” says MacLean-Meeks.

Perhaps the most important task is recognizing that change takes work on your part. “It’s not going to happen automatically. You are going to have to push yourself into the uncomfortable zone,” says MacLean-Meeks. The tendency when we feel vulnerable, afraid and alone is to find comfort and security in the confines of our home, and we don’t venture out. “I often hear from people that they have come to the realization that it’s up to them. If things are going to change, they have to make the first step forward.”

*Name has been changed.