We may be living alone and travelling alone by choice or by circumstance at this stage of our lives. For some, marriages are done; the children have flown the nest. Others may always have known what it means to be single, independent self-starters. And increasingly, by our 60’s and 70’s, many of us grieve the loss through death of our partner. It can happen suddenly, or gradually; we are alone.
In Australia, according to the most recent census, one quarter of people over 65 live alone in a private dwelling. As may be expected, the proportion increases with age.
There are advantages to living alone, of course, although those who are newly grieving may find it hard to admit. When the marriage or partnership has been close, we miss everyday companionship and the prospect of enjoying the future together. Unaccustomed to making financial decisions, thinking through next stage living arrangements can seem daunting. Although we can buy in advice and pay for attention, it’s a far cry from deep familiarity and understanding.
But it can be OK. ‘I govern my day’ says one man, still involved in part-time work from home, and long divorced. ‘I can be lonely, but there’s a young family I’m quite involved with. We go bush on camping holidays together. I like that. I have my own interests. And I see quite a bit of my own (adult) kids.’ No longer the tensions and differences of opinion that can crop up in close proximity to another, no need to make the sometimes difficult adjustment to ‘24/7 under the same roof’, a shock to some retiring couples who haven’t realized how much the fabric of work has helped hold their marriage together.
It’s probably true that both living alone and travelling alone require more effort on your part. You are the organizer, whether you like it or not. You have to plan forward, manage the details, and recognize the risks, whether it’s around renovations to your home, or how you’re going to handle the suitcases in getting from bus to train to plane in a non English speaking country. You do not want to lose your balance, after all, by carrying too many bags on one of those long escalators, if a few judicious enquiries show you can take the lift. At home or away, when you want to get up and get out, it’s up to you. On down days or slow days or sick days, you are it, unless you have observant, caring friends or family you can call on. There is no ‘buffer’.
The upside to all this is that it can be fun. ‘Adventures are more likely to happen when I’m on my own’ says one woman. ‘I strike up conversations’. This was echoed by another woman who recently chose to travel to the Netherlands without her husband. She reported a hilarious encounter in broken French with an older man who persistently tried to attach himself to her over lunch and en route to the Art Gallery afterwards. She realized she needed to brush up her assertiveness skills and be less polite much sooner. ‘But I enjoyed the personal freedom enormously. In general, I could choose what I wanted to do and see.’
Freedom to choose is of course available to all of us and perhaps never more so than in retirement. Having an engaged and enjoyable life depends on our mindset. When we recognize that connectedness and a sense of belonging are essential to ageing well, we can make the decision to put ourselves out there, preferably with a little help from our friends.
Hilary Steel, BA MBA DipAdPsych, Retire & Flourish
‘This article has been reproduced with permission from Gabrielle Leahy of Retire & Flourish Pty Ltd’