Recently, I was in line at CVS. I stood a few customers behind a much older woman who took an enormous amount of time and kept talking to the salesperson even after her transaction was rung up. I got impatient and mumbled something like “Why can’t she hurry up?” The woman in front of me overheard and turned to say, “Well, for some people, this is the only contact they have all day with another human being.”
I felt ashamed. Ashamed of my impatience. Ashamed of my lack of empathy. And ashamed, because I know how close I sometimes come to feeling that isolated.
In general, since my divorce, I’ve been pretty comfortable living alone, working as a consultant, going to events with friends and handling my own life and finances. But there have been times, particularly during a recent sickness, when I have felt that sense of isolation. If I died during the night, who would notice?
When you’re married, even if it’s a bad marriage, you have someone to attend events with, ask to check out that funny-looking mole on your back and trust to call an ambulance if you keel over in the middle of the night. When you live alone and you’re getting older, there’s no one to notice the little things, and you have to make an effort every day to reach out and talk to people, particularly if you no longer work or if you work as a sole proprietor, as I do. Without constant tending, your circle of friends can wither; people move away, get ill, die or just do less as time goes on. And even if you have a robust group of friends, there are times when no one is there: that middle-of-the-night pain in your chest; that evening when you have two tickets to an event, but can’t convince anyone to come along; or that day when you twist your ankle and can barely get out to do errands.
So, what’s the answer? Well, in terms of your physical health, you could ask your relatives, your children or your next-door neighbor to check in on you periodically, but that really isn’t an answer, and I suspect most of us would find it awkward. And I’m not quite ready for a medical alert necklace or button. I think the better answer for how to cope with the solitude inherent in living alone is probably twofold: to become a little more zealous in looking after your own health than you might otherwise be and, more importantly, to nurture all of your relationships and give as much as you can to others.
The first part of the equation is fairly simple and not a particular stretch for me, since I’m a person who immediately feels symptoms whenever I read WebMD. It can be easy to chalk up various aches and pains to growing older and not take concrete steps to care for yourself, but don’t fall into that trap. Make those appointments you sometimes put off (the mammogram, the eye doctor, etc.), and “adult-proof” your home — I now have everything I might need if I became homebound (a working thermometer, some soup, Tylenol that hasn’t already expired, bandages, my HBO Go log-in information). Try to exercise as much as possible, eat healthily, and don’t be afraid to go to the doctor if you notice something feels different, or wrong, or strange.
The second part of the equation is a little more difficult and revealing. You need to ensure that you have a support system in place in a way that doesn’t make you embarrassed. And that means being honest about your fears and concerns about living alone. I decided to tackle this by talking first to my relatives: my sister who lives nearby, my children who are not far away. It’s hard. You feel exposed and a little bit like a loser. How did this happen? Why does everyone else seem to have large groups of incredibly supportive friends? But telling people about my feelings was ultimately liberating, because I found that many of us, even those married or in a relationship, have the same feelings of isolation and have felt our social networks contract over the years.
And in the process, I realized that building a support system for when you get sick doesn’t make a lot of sense. What you really need to focus on is creating a support network when you’re well. Because ultimately, if you have friends you care about, they’ll worry if you don’t respond. If you have family members you are close to, they will check in frequently. If you volunteer or join organizations, people will notice if you don’t show up for a meeting or an event. And if you care about other people and try to help them if they’re in need, they might well return the favor.
So now my plan is simple. I volunteer as often as I can, and I take every opportunity to speak with people, whether I know them or not (you’d be surprised how uplifting it can be to see someone smile when you compliment her on her nail color or the coat she’s wearing). These small kindnesses reap great rewards. I ask my friends to go out without worrying about whether I’m the one who always seems to be doing the asking. Friendship is not a game and not about keeping score. And I get out every day, if at all possible, to enjoy the weather, or a museum, or a cup of coffee with a new acquaintance.
And whenever I see an older person struggling with a package or looking at labels in a drug store, I try to initiate a brief conversation. Because someday that person might be me.