Aging Alone and Well. Defying the Statistics
“Do you like being alone?” This question begins “A Solitary Life Carries Risk” in the NY Times “Well” section. I’d saved it since March. While it’s aimed at us, based on research following around 3.4 million people over 7 years, it concludes “Although living alone can offer conveniences and advantages for an individual, physical health is not among them.” Indeed the lead researcher says “Social isolation significantly predicts risk for premature mortality comparable to other well established risk factors.”
If married or with a partner, it’s inevitable one of us will be left alone. How did Sr. Advisor R, who lived alone since being widowed at 50, defy these sobering statistics? A simplistic answer could be that she maintained social connections, which all studies have found is important in aging well. That said, here’s the additional–
Good genes and a smart, disciplined lifestyle
At 100 all doctors said R was in amazingly good health for her age. To achieve that she took ownership of her life. This included:
- regular exercise on her treadmill, purchased soon after her husband died. She felt unsafe taking the daily walks without him and obviously understood the value of exercise in the early ’60’s. That’s when she purchased and began using that treadmill. (It didn’t plug in; feet supplied the power.) She was still using it at 101.
- eating healthy. Details in four previous posts:
What Food Should a 97-year-old Eat?,
The Food a 97-year-old Buys for Herself
Aging Parents Who Don’t Eat Properly: A Centenarian’s Advice
How A Centenarian Prepares Easy, Healthy Meals
Valuing “Alone.” Making it Work
While emphasizing the mortality risks that accompany living alone, the research recognized that “living alone can offer conveniences and advantages.” R was smart and creative enough (she called it “common sense”) to have both by compensating for age-related losses/changes. Examples:
- reworking how to do things to save her energy (ie. shaking the salad greens with dressing in a plastic bag, thus not having to wash extra dishes–she didn’t use a dishwasher).
- leaving note pads in each room with reminders (so she wouldn’t forget what she came in for)
- putting a to-do list on the desk in her bedroom so she’d see it first thing
- having a list of important phone numbers (friends, service people) on that desk
- having 3 conveniently-located phones (bedroom, kitchen, den)
- having a contractor-friend make adjustments as needed (eg.grab bars) in bathrooms
Combatting Social Isolation
As long as I knew her, R said she enjoyed her own company, treasuring the alone-days (stay-at-home days, she never drove) when she could do as she pleased. Late in life it was her major argument/defense against having any “help” except her cleaning woman in her home for 4 hours once a week. She increased that help to twice a week the last months of her life.
So how does one who values solitude fight becoming “obsolete” (a friend’s description) and remain engaged until the end? It would seem to be accomplished by:
- the genuine interest and generosity shown towards others in her younger years, which was repaid by those whose lives she touched, in many thoughtful ways later on.
- a strong will to stay engaged
- knowing–or having cultivated friendships with–younger people (beyond family) who understand the importance of doing (and how to do) what’s better for the elder, not what’s easier for them.
- taking the initiative, inviting others to go out (they drove) to lunch, a movie, lectures etc. R recalled when her husband died. Her social life dwindled. She realized if she didn’t take the initiative she would be sitting home, alone.
Social isolation, so common to many who live decades without a spouse–no problem! Is that incredible since–through choice–R never drove. She was happy to be a passenger. That said, Diane Ackerman’s well-known quote“I don’t want to be a passenger in my own life,“ seems to have been a guiding principle. R valued being in control of her life. She decided what she wanted to do and how she did it.
To be continued on Saturday with Staying Connected and Our Role in Combatting Social Isolation. We will hopefully be back in NY, having finished the majority of our work here.
Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well.