Becoming single happens frequently at my retirement community. Most couples would like to be together until the end but it seldom is that way. Each of us, myself included, handles the loss of our spouse differently. For me, I was very fortunate to be living with a group of age mates who continually offered me support and companionship as I grieved and regrouped. This was the first time in my life I’ve been single since I was 20 years old.
I recently talked with the publisher of a newsletter for seniors and he told me that one of the greater needs of older people was being prepared to face old age being single. At my community, as of March 2015, we have 29 single men, 103 single women and 101 couples living here.
One of my friends unexpectedly lost her husband. They were the same age, middle 80s, and had been married since they graduated high school. They appeared extremely compatible and happy. All was well until he felt a shortness of breath, saw his doctor, had surgery and died, all within a few weeks. He had always done everything for her and that had been just fine with her. Now she is struggling, unprepared in so many ways to manage on her own. Fortunately she has two very supportive middle-aged children living close by to help her. She does not know how she would have managed during those early months of widowhood without them. In her own words she talks about how depressed she still is, her extreme loneliness and her lack of daily living skills. She reminded me of how frustrated I was after Bob died because I couldn’t remove the cork from the wine bottle: my husband had always done that. I adapted by buying screw-top wine bottles. My friend’s problems are much more complicated.
A different story is from a friend from the East who moved here a month after her husband’s death because she had a daughter in the general area. Now, a few years later and still missing her husband deeply, she feels the move was a mistake. She told me, “I wish I had stayed where my dear friends of a half century of living were. That’s where my heart was. No one here ever knew him so he almost ceased to exist in daily life since he was never referred to.” She realizes now that she moved much too soon. “Perhaps the old chestnut of never making a major change in your life until after a year proved to be so true, at least for me. To lose your husband and your friends all within a year is extremely difficult.”
Her advice, which I strongly agree with, is to allow yourself the time you need to adjust to being single before you make a significant move. For me, I had great support from my new friends of two years, whether they were still couples or not. My friend adds more wisdom, “Your children are marvelous in a crisis but their lives go on and you can’t expect them to fill your days, months or even years ahead.”
Again, drawing conclusions from what I see here at my CCRC, I believe men respond to the loss of their spouses differently from women. The men whose spouses died after having lived here for a while frequently connect with a female partner after a period of mourning. This is also true of men who move in as widowers. In a short time I see them dining with the same female companion regularly. Of course you can argue with my conclusion and say it’s the eager widows who find them. All I know is that men seem to pair up fairly quickly.
As I said early in this series, my wish would be to spend more time in male company. I am very fond of my women friends but long for more male/female interaction. I found that after Bob’s death there was a period of kind support from my couple friends. Then many of them stopped calling me for dinner dates, preferring to pair up with another couple. I can’t fault them for this. I probably would have done the same thing if the situation had been reversed. However, when a couple does invite me to join their dinner group for the evening I always find it stimulating to exchange ideas and views with the men at the table. I have no wish for any permanent male pairing but would enjoy more social interaction with men.
Is it any easier for the woman who has been divorced or widowed and is now on her second marriage to navigate widowhood than those of us who have been married to the same person all our lives? I don’t know. I also wonder about women who have cared for a partner with poor health for many years. In her heart of hearts, is she relieved that he has finally died and her burden is over? I am not keen on asking people these questions so I’m without answers.
There are some general conclusions I think I can make. Most of us would like to be part of a couple. Loss of a person we care deeply about is always painful. Most emotionally healthy humans can eventually work through the loss in their own particular way and move on with their lives. There will never be a set formula nor should there be.
Maybe the staff at our residence should consider a support group for recent, or not so recent, widows and widowers. I have seen announcements of grief support groups. I do not know whether they have been successful. Perhaps offering not a grief group but a group just to discuss the huge life changes of moving from two to one would be supportive. As they say, “old age ain’t no place for sissies”.
Before I conclude this article, maybe I should reflect on things I like about being single—silly little things that I would be happy to do without. When I wake up at night and have trouble falling back to sleep, I can turn the light on and read. I was never able to do that when I had a bed partner. I think I am less tidy. Bob was very neat, and I tried to please him with neatness. Also, I play in a bi-monthly poker game of mostly men and love being part of the game. If Bob were still around he would be playing in the game and I would be happy he had his poker game. The car would be much cleaner; I am not as particular about the car as he was. The gas gauge goes much lower than it ever did when he was in charge, but I have never run out of gas.
So while spending my last stop being single is not my first choice, I believe living in a CCRC makes aging single much easier.
Written by Margery Fridstein, an author and retired psychotherapist specializing in child development. Margery currently lives in a continuing care retirement community outside of Denver, CO. She is chronicling her senior living experience in the monthly series, “The Last Stop With Margery Fridstein.”