Some 25 years ago I heard a lecture by Jean Shinona Bolen, the San Francisco Jungian psychiatrist and author of books on women and the goddess.
In her talk Bolen commented, ‘The best kept secret in most women’s circles is that the happiest woman in the group is the 67 year old grandmother.’
At the time I couldn’t image being “happy” at 67. I had bought into the cultural stereotype that old age was depressing, a state to be dreaded. Now that I’m past 67, I get it. I am indeed more content than at any previous stage in my life. I find this to be true of many of my cronies. It’s often especially true for women who live alone.
The women living alone I spoke with were divorced, unpartnered or widowed. After a period of adjustment they grew into their single status, basking in its freedom. This seems to be the big bonus for women, like Elaine, widowed five years ago and Anne, divorced for 30 years.
Older women living alone relish the independence to come and go as they like, to cook or not to cook, to read in the middle of the night, to take a spur of the moment road trip—practices that frequently require accommodating to a live-in partner. By and large they told me the last thing they want is to remarry or live with someone.
An unexpected dividend of solo living is the personal growth that can accompany loss. Connie, 80, alone for the first time three years ago after her partner died, describes how this death changed her:
“Without the presence of another I am expanding in a new way. There is no one to reflect back to me, so a new aspect of my life is opening.”
To cope with the loss of her husband, Elaine spent more time meditating, deepening her practice, appreciating the reflection and calmness ushered in by sitting in silence.
Carol has found the challenges of living solo have given her more self-confidence. When married she counted on her spouse for company. Now that she doesn’t always have a companion for a dinner out or for travel she has learned to socialize solo, telling me, “Just because I’m alone doesn’t mean I will deprive myself.”
There are women like Diane who live alone with some modification. She has boarders who help to supplement her income while providing companionship.
Lynn, like all the women I spoke with, insists that friends become even more important as one ages in a single lifestyle: friends whose company is enriching and who can be counted on for help when you have an emergency or become sick.
The downside of living alone is the prospect of a serious illness and a lingering death without live-in supports. Leslie has made a pact with two friends to be one another’s support system when one of them is dying. Other women are exploring shared housing for a built-in support system in their dotage.
May Sarton, the poet, lived alone for a big chunk of her adult life, finding true joy in her solitude:
Loneliness is most acutely felt with other people . . . Human intercourse often demands that we soften the edge of perception, or withdraw at the very instant of personal truth for fear of hurting, or of being inappropriately present . . . Alone we can afford to be wholly whatever we are, and to feel whatever we feel absolutely. That is a great luxury!
How has living alone become meaningful for you?
If you’d like more conversations with like-minded women, we have a Facebook group for you: WOW (Women’s Older Wisdom)