“Unfortunately, aging is not a team sport.”
– Dr. Joe Coughlin, Director of the MIT AgeLab
The AgeLab was established at MIT in 1999 as a multidisciplinary research program that works with businesses to improve the quality of life of older people and those who care for them. The AgeLab applies consumer-centered thinking to understand the challenges and opportunities of longevity and emerging generational lifestyles to encourage innovation across business markets. Their insights are critical for anyone who is nearing retirement, or who has loved ones such as parents, aunts, or uncles who are entering this stage of life. This article in our series discusses the “Solo Journey” phase and explores the realities of life as a surviving spouse.
The “Solo Journey”
As we discussed in our last article, the folks at the MIT AgeLab have proposed a new name for the “retirement years,” the stage of life that begins roughly at age 66 and extends for 25 or more years through the end of life. According to the AgeLab, these years should be named the “Exploring” phase of our lives, as opposed to “retirement.”
In their model for aging, the AgeLab also suggests that there are four distinct phases that people experience as they live through their “Exploring” years. The first of these is the “Honeymoon” phase, named because it marks the period of time when this whole idea of exploring our freedom is brand new to us. But, there are also a number of adjustments that must be made as we acclimate to the changes in our lives.
The second stage is called the “Big Decision” stage because this is a time when we are faced with a number of very important decisions that may impact our quality of life for the rest of our lives, and in particular, decisions about where we will live.
The third stage is known as “Managing Longevity.” This is a period of time when managing the complexities of life may become more challenging. The final stage is the “Solo Journey,” referring to the period of time after one spouse passes away and the other is left to live out the remainder of their years alone.
Adjusting to Life Alone
Statistics tell us that almost 30 percent of Americans over the age of 65 are living alone, and that among the population of older Americans who are living alone, 69 percent are women. Most of the people living alone have experienced the loss of a spouse, and the average age of widowhood in America today is 59 years old. Because female life expectancies are longer than male life expectancies, most wives are likely to outlive their husbands, which accounts for the significantly higher proportion of women living alone. However, the rate of divorce later in life is also rising, as the divorce rate of couples over the age of 50 has doubled in recent years.
Whether it is due to the loss of a spouse or a divorce, millions of older Americans – mostly women – are living alone. The death of a spouse or the dissolution of a marriage can be traumatic, particularly for those who have been married for many years. These events are likely to trigger feelings of grief and depression, as well as intense loneliness for the spouse who is left alone on their “Solo Journey.” For many people, this phase of life will become a reality – one which must be realistically anticipated and prepared for. It’s appropriate to start by revisiting the initial three stages of the “Exploring” phase. The questions and issues that we had previously been addressed as a couple must now be addressed as an individual.
Revisiting the “Honeymoon” Phase
During the “Honeymoon” phase, we are faced with decisions about how to use our newfound free time. For many, this presents questions about employment and how to contribute to the world and find purpose while enjoying the benefits of leisure and relaxation. As a solo spouse we must now reconsider these questions. We may discover a renewed need to find ways to spend our time, such as going back to work or volunteering at a local organization.
This may also be a time to revisit our financial wellbeing to ensure that our plan is still on track – even if we have lost some income streams as a result of the death or departure of our spouse. Family dynamics may also change again – and there may be conflict between family members if we want to live a more independent life, but our children want to manage our care. For this reason, clear intentions and plans previously put in place, such as a power of attorney, healthcare proxies, and, more broadly, our preferences for care, can help make this period run smoothly and comfortably. This can also decrease the burden placed on adult children who may otherwise feel compelled to make decisions for, and, sometimes, against the will of their parents.
Revisiting the “Big Decision” Phase
During the “Big Decision” phase, we made important life decisions, particularly about our living arrangements. Now, alone and older, we may want to reconsider our living arrangements, perhaps moving in with family or into a senior community or long-term care facility.
Revisiting the “Managing Longevity” Phase
During the “Managing Longevity” phase, we learned how to manage the complexities of everyday life as an aging adult. Now, alone and perhaps older, these complexities may intensify. Health or physical issues can quickly and abruptly come to the forefront. A single catastrophic event, such as a fall or stroke, can immediately change our needs and lifestyle. We may require a caregiver on an occasional or daily basis to run errands, provide transportation to and from doctor’s appointments, or help with other activities. In such scenarios, it is critical to find trusted people to assist us.
Financial and legal administration and planning are likely to become important as well, especially if we were left without adequate support and an infrastructure of knowledgeable advisors who can help with investment, tax, and estate planning matters.
Maintaining a Social Network
Our social network may also change at this time, due to aging and life without a spouse. We may feel like we have fewer friends – or fewer opportunities to join friends and family may be available – and loneliness and isolation may become significant problems.
Studies have shown that social activity is a key way to protect against age-related decline and a significant determinant of the happiness and fulfillment of older people. A recent survey of 80-year-old Americans conducted by Rush University indicated that a slight increase in the frequency of social activity can correspond to a five-year difference in motor function.
It is clear that our planning and preparation for the “Solo Journey” must include a focus on creating a living environment and social setting that provides ample opportunities to socialize and connect with others.