Building a strong network of friends and neighbors could be the best strategy for living happily and independently as we age.
Auremar / 123RF Photo
I was cleaning the cat box the other day, and just as I reached over to scoop – WHAM – huge back pain. I could barely breathe. I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t move. I was stuck, bent over in agony, alone in the house. The dog was scratching at the door, my parrot was in her outdoor aviary squawking and the cats were wandering about – and none of them, no matter how much they adore me, could do anything to help. Even my cell phone, just in the other room, might as well be in the next state. I was screwed!
Did that ever give me a wake-up call about how scary it can be to live by yourself. I share my house with a friend, but he was out of town, and as much as I often wish that I lived alone, boy, was I ever wishing he was there to help me then. I eventually got better, with an ice pack, heating pad and ibuprofen, but that episode got me thinking about the downside of living by oneself: being alone when you need some serious help.
I’ve always adored my independence, but crunched over that day, I realized how dependent we humans can be. Something happens: a major illness or injury – some kind of unexpected occurrence when you hit a wall and need help. I thought of some of my friends who live alone, particularly those who are getting older. How do they manage? What plan do they have in place? Do they even have a plan?
I asked a few and here’s what they said:
Gail (69-year-old retired office manager): I’ve lived alone since 1970. I never wanted a roommate, I loved my independence. I’m turning 70 in two months and I’m not as self-assured as I used to be. A few years ago, I got a mean case of bronchitis. A close friend asked who was taking care of me. I was speechless. “No one,” I told him. I called a friend and asked if she could get me chicken soup. It was difficult for me to reach out and ask for help. I started thinking this independence thing wasn’t so great anymore, not at my age. My fantasy now is The Golden Girls. A house with three or four women who still like to have fun and are compatible, and have someone around for help. I’m living on a fixed income now, so I don’t see that happening. I am applying for new, low-income-based housing with amenities, but the wait lists are years long.
Tom (67-year-old semi-retired tech book author): I had a similar experience (of living alone and needing help) and do not have a strategy for that kind of thing. I do have Social Security and some savings, and I have an annuity that starts in June. A big step I took was to move to a senior community outside of Las Vegas where there are a lot of responsive services – if I can get to the phone. If I were incapacitated completely, I would be in deep shit. I calculate that barring something catastrophic, I have 20 years of income left. But if I have fewer years, I’m better off, so my strategy is to die sooner.
Dan (59-year-old electrician) – When I got divorced at age 50, my ex-wife got half of my pension. I’ve been working my entire life, and have a retirement plan through my union, but that’s just $3,000 a month and my social security will be around that, as well. I never really thought of saving for retirement with an IRA. I spent a lot of money on my kids, who always seem to need something. As much as I’d like to retire when I turn 65, I would have to make some big changes to live on 40 percent less income. More likely, I’ll have to work part-time for as long as I can. I have several brothers who live in the area, and I think they would help me if I ever needed it. But we’ve never discussed it or made any kind of formal or even informal agreements about that. I’m just hoping for the best.
Lila (62-year-old semi-retired private investor): I purchased a long-term care policy with 5 percent compound interest inflation protection in my 40s. By paying a lump sum upfront at a relatively early age during a high interest environment, I was able to snag excellent LTC benefits. In my 50s, I purchased longevity insurance, which provides an advanced life deferred annuity with guaranteed income for life as a hedge against outliving my retirement savings. I plan to delay my Social Security benefits until after my full retirement age (66) so that my monthly benefit continues to increase until reaching maximum at age 70 (132 percent versus 100 percent at 66). I also have a living trust and will, pet/companion animal trust in place and advance healthcare directive. For the future, I’m researching housing options such as planned retirement communities for baby boomers. Moving into my own house or townhouse in a gated community with many of my friends as neighbors would be ideal. My older brother and his family live just two blocks away, and it’s great having family close by in case of emergencies.
Whoa! Lila! Of all the people I spoke to, she was the only person who appeared to have a solid strategy in place – one that didn’t involve wishful thinking. Why is it so hard for most of us to take the same kind of steps, to have a strategy in place and to have it in place before we need it?
Traditionally, people were members of churches and had other deep social connections with their neighbors and community. Almost everyone got married and stayed married. They had kids, the kids grew up and moved away, and their parents stayed in the house where they raised the kids. When the husband died, the kids convinced mom to sell the house and moved her into a senior living facility, paying for it with the proceeds from the house. Now we have a growing number of single people, many whom have never had children, who are reaching their retirement years unprepared financially and disconnected from a dependable social support network, also known as friends, real friends.
And no matter how elaborate the insurance and savings, and no matter how fiercely single we might be, cultivating connections with caring people we trust is key – not so we can become a burden for them, but so we can be there for each other. It might be too late to amass a giant retirement nest egg, but it’s not too late to create relationships with other people who can become like family to us, and we like family to them.
Who else can we turn to if not to each other?
Copyright © Kim Calvert/2017 Singular Communications, LLC.
Kim Calvert is the editor of Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful urban living.