I live in California, the land of good wine, and it was in the Silicon Valley area that I met with a friend at one of those cute little wine bars in Palo Alto.
She started to talk about everything she had been doing over the last year plus for her mother, who was then about 87. She had been flying back and forth, probably six times in one year, to the East Coast where her mother was because she had to get her mother situated in a retirement community.
Her mother, at that point, was kind of beyond the point of doing that search herself. Sandy and her brother set to work on finding the right community for her. They sold her car, changed her address, and introduced her to the new people in the community that they found for her. Finally, they had to sell her home.
These things added to over a year’s worth of work. I looked at Sandy when she finished telling me about it, and I said, “Sandy, you and I do not have children. Who is going to do all this for us?” Of course, there was no answer; there is no good answer. This question became a guiding force in my life for the next ten years.
Background of Solo Agers
As you can imagine, after I asked the “who was going to do that for us” question, I had some work to do; I needed to research what was happening. Were Sandy and I the only two people in the world with this problem, or were many other people in the same situation?
Here is what I found. The statistics of women having children have not changed for several millennia. The rate of childlessness in the U.S. population hovered around 10 percent until the Baby Boomers came along. You will notice this research was done in 2010 when the youngest Baby Boomer women were wrapping up their child-bearing years, so it was a fair analysis of what had been going on for the prior 20 years.
Low and behold, the number of Baby Boomer women who are childless was almost twice what the childlessness had been in previous generations or 19.4 percent. It still boggles my mind when I think that one out of every five boomer women I see did not give birth. Many of these women, of course, went on to adopt or marry into a kind of ready-made families.
Fast forward about 12 years, and the U.S. Census Bureau did a study in 2021, right after the 2020 census, on how many childless older adults are there. The lighter, smaller rectangle on the right on the bar chart is not Baby Boomers, and this is the generation ahead of the Baby Boomers showing how many women still living in that age group did not have children.
The middle bar is the oldest Baby Boomers, which has double the rate of childlessness from the previous generation. Interestingly, the rate is even higher for later Boomers. So many, many millions of Baby Boomer women did not have children.
Why do you think that is? I love to throw this question out to audiences as it makes us all think back to the late ’60s and into the ’70s. What was going on in this country? It is three-fold.
- The first big thing for Baby Boomer women was a little, round, cylindrical, white thing called the Pill. We had that Pill by 1964, just in time for the oldest, leading edge of the Baby Boomers to take advantage of it.
- There was also a huge push to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. That led to many marches, agitating, and activating aimed at Washington to get them to try and add this amendment to the Constitution.
Even though the Equal Rights Amendment never passed, the agitation that came out of that effort hugely benefited women. It caused legislation that prohibited discrimination toward women in all the things that mattered to them at that time, such as they could not be discriminated against to get into college. As did industry, dozens of male-dominated and male-only colleges had to open their doors to women. This opened the door for women who had previously believed that they either had to be secretaries, teachers, or any other limited professions so that they could also be a wife and a mother.
For the first time, women could see their way to a path where they did not need a husband to support them. They might want a husband as a partner, but no longer was it necessary to have a man as their financial support system. So many women decided, “Hmm, you know, I think I will have a career. I do not have that biological clock ticking; I think I will go off and do my own thing.” Enough women did that; fast forward 40 years, and it produced this chart.
- Childless men and women are not the only Solo Agers. Some have no children, live alone, are estranged from family, or have dysfunctional families.
A friend of mine and her husband have one son who married a Danish woman and has two kids and another on the way. Where do you think they live? In Denmark, near her parents. So, Judy and her husband Rocky cannot hang out with their grandkids as they want. They are also truly Solo Agers because it would be challenging for their son and daughter-in-law to come rushing in from 9,000 miles away if, at some point, they have a problem and need to find someplace else to live.
We have other friends and neighbors whose relationships with their families exist on a screen. Once again, these people have children, and those children live far away. Depending on the lives of the people involved, these people often tell me they feel like Solo Agers.
Of course, some happily live alone. I know dozens and dozens of primarily women, but some men, who have been contentedly lived on their own for many years. In fact, some studies about middle age show that women who live alone are some of the happiest people. They can control their lives, do what they want, come and go as they please, and that is midlife. But the problem is that living happily alone into your 70s, your 80s, your 90s, that “happily” part can drop off quickly.
Ways a Solo Ager’s Social Network is Different from Someone Who is a Parent
Most Solo Agers are happy to create a life of their own that does not necessarily involve their biological family. Many form a family by choice, which strongly influences their happiness model.
In a study about 15 years ago, several thousand people aged 60+ were asked to rank order these items. Eighty percent said their relationship with their family was the key driver of their happiness. That is the thing that brought them the most joy, totally to be expected. Friends and friendships were also rated very high. Friends can become our chosen family; we must carefully choose them in a way that makes sense for all of us in the future. Contributing to the lives of others is also extremely important. This tells me that everyone needs meaning and purpose in their life. We all need a reason to get up in the morning. There is so much potential for being happy later in life that has nothing to do with our biology, nothing to do with the fact that we may or may not have given birth to children, or we may or may not be in touch with those children.
The following are illustrations of the social network. Notice on the social network of parents how most of the heavy arrows are pointing toward the children and the grandchildren. I have seen this so distinctly in my own life. The friends that I have that have kids, especially those that now have grandkids, most of their social life is directed in that way. Sometimes those relationships with kids and grandkids include the children’s friends, the grandchildren’s friends, the in-laws, the people that marry your children, or later in life, that marry your grandchildren.
There is also some relationship with community and friends. Parents can have friends and participate in the community, but not nearly to the extent they do with their family. Again, modified by geography. Some families are just highly spread out and have a difficult time doing this, or if they do it, it is more on a little screen using Skype, or Zoom, or something to at least have a face to look at.
Here is the typical network of a Solo Ager. I consider people who do not have children to be a Solo Ager, whether or not they are married. My husband and I do not have children, but we do not have a crystal ball either, and we do not know which one of us will pass on before the other. When that happens, the remaining one will be a true, solid Solo Ager, so we are both preparing for it in many ways that I will describe later.
This makes this presentation important: when you add in all those other people who believe themselves to be Solo Agers for one reason or another, we are talking about 30-something percent of the population. Millions, and millions, and millions of people are not supported later in life.
Notice that the strong arrows here are with friends, community, and siblings if they are around. I encourage Solo Agers to develop as much interaction and relationships as possible with whatever biological family is available. If you live in the area with your nieces and nephews and you like them, I encourage you to form a relationship with them if their values resonate with yours. They will be your first line of defense when you start looking for people to name on your advanced directives or any of your estate planning.
The Importance of Building a Strong Community for Solo Agers
Most Solo Agers, after we have left our primary career and gone off to do some freelance work, tend to spend much time doing the kinds of things that are fulfilling to them. Whether gardening, running, biking, or playing pickleball, we do that often with friends and other people in the community. “Community” can mean many things. For example, scratch the surface of any non-profit organization that hires volunteers, and you will find a lot of Solo Agers.
One thing that we risk later in life is isolation and loneliness. We need to plan not to become isolated, which can lead to loneliness and many unpleasant, unhealthy disorders.
Knowledge of these unfortunate things, like depression, comes from solid research on isolated people. This research has stepped up in the last couple of years because we are starting to have a new picture of isolation and what it does to people. One recent impressive medical study showed that loneliness and isolation contribute more strongly to your early mortality than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Pretty amazing, is it not? We all think of 15 cigarettes daily as a quick route to a funeral.
The cure for isolation and loneliness is right at hand. Building and maintaining our social support networks is critical as we age, no matter where we are in life or where we come from. We must find reasons to get involved in life and stay involved.
If you find yourself sitting around more than you would like to, begin to think about the things that make you happy. What do you like to do? Whether lifting weights at a gym, having a backyard party, joining a hiking group, or joining a quilting circle, it just does not matter what; many things are available to people.
One of my favorite websites that physically gets people together is called “Meetup,” or Meetup.com. Meetup is the resource to find people who like to do the things you like to do, especially as you live in a more urban or larger city. Even in smaller areas, Meetup has made inroads and helps people find groups of people just like them with whom they can hang out. It is also important to dine, have happy hours, celebrate with people, and celebrate life as much as possible. I think we have never understood how important that is more acutely than we do today.
Where suburbs get into trouble is often with transportation issues. The movement toward age-friendly cities, which is going on in many places, is trying to remedy some of this as best they can. Still, it is just a good idea to understand your transportation options, especially as you get into your late 70s and starting to get into your 80s, especially if you have a condition that limits your mobility. This kind of thing hangs people up later in life; they have lived in the suburbs very happily for 40 years, and suddenly, they have to quit driving.
Another critical area to pay attention to is to keep up our social interaction and build our social networks, which also helps us ensure that neither our hearing nor vision is impaired. Cataract surgery is something that happens to older people. Medicare covers this simple operation, which will help them see better so they can keep their driver’s license as long as possible.
Hearing loss is an insidious trap. If we let our hearing diminish, do you know what happens? We begin to shrink from life. You tend to be quiet when you can’t hear a conversation. Nobody wants to be the “what” person, to say, “What? What did you say? What was that? Say that again?” So what do we do instead? We clam up.
Another caution, especially as Solo Agers get older, is to ensure you get your hearing tested. One of the reasons people do not get tested is because hearing aids are expensive, typically $3,000 or $5,000 a set. New hearing devices are being introduced, some over the counter, and I am told they work. So, if you know that your hearing is starting to fail, if you are turning up the volume more on your TV if you need that closed caption on the TV, especially if you watch with a partner, and that person says, “It is too loud,” it is probably time to get your hearing test.
Staying in touch with neighbors is also critically important, especially if you live in an area that is a little shy of transportation. However, I can hardly think of a situation when getting to know your neighbors would not be a good idea. This was brought home to all of us so dramatically during COVID.
Finally, get a dog. Besides a dog being a great companion, one of the best ways to get to know people in your neighborhood is to walk your dog. Eventually, you know more of the dogs’ names in the neighborhood than the people. Getting a dog is a great conversation starter.
Once again, it is crucial to understand your social support system and remember that question, “Who will do that for us?” This is the potential support system of people who will do that for you, who will be your support system as you get older.
A person’s support system tends to disappear or shrink over age 50. Some of them go away sooner than you think they might. They do not all go away, but they do start to diminish, and then if you let them go, you end up the only people in your life when you are in your 80s or 90s to be the doctors and other caregivers you pay to take care of you.
I would rather my support system look more like this, so that the dominant element in it is my friends and the community around me, maybe my neighbors. If there is anything left of my extended family, or I even have a nuclear family, they are certainly in the picture, too. Of course, the doctors and the caregivers will always be in the picture. The problem is, we don’t have a crystal ball; we do not know which of these are going to leave our lives and which are going to be there still.
It is also good to think about how “sticky” some people are. Do you anticipate them staying around, or are they planning a move? With some of those friends who do have children, what happens? They tend to move away to be near their kids and grandkids.
Places for Solo Agers to Live?
For Solo Agers, I am not a big fan of what is commonly known as aging in place, especially if your definition of aging in place is, “I am going to stay in this two- or three-story suburban home for the rest of my life, you will have to drag me out of here feet first.”
There are so many other options that are quite viable for Solo Agers. I will start with the more traditional options for senior living that have been around quite a while.
- The most independent one, the “active adult,” is what it is called now and used to be called 55+ communities, are simply communities where people who are 55 and older can buy into or rent. There are thousands of acres of them in Florida, California, and all over the rest of the country. A senior citizen community is what some people call it.
Mostly, you pay some monthly dues, which gets a lot of your maintenance taken care of, and it is certainly a simpler life than owning your own three-story home, taking care of the lawn, the gutters, the shrubbery, and everything on your own.
This is a step down in responsibility for most people. Most people are still, of course, very mobile and very active when they move into these communities. They are the most popular form of senior living right now. An example is Margaritaville, an active adult community where you can own or rent a home, all built around the Jimmy Buffett theme of Margaritaville. There is much partying as they are all near or on a beach, which appeals to a particular population segment.
- Going a step up from there, you have your life plan community or CCRC. These are the fancy ones that people generally must buy into. Sometimes you can find them on a rental basis, where you pay market value for any additional care you might get. Most people go in as independent living residents, and as they need more care, it is offered to them sometimes for an increased fee, sometimes not for an increased fee. Very complicated, and it depends on the kind of contract you have with the community.
- These communities have not only independent living and assisted living, but most have memory care and skilled nursing. So, it is the whole gamut of care for older adults. Therefore, many Solo Agers, especially those that can afford it, gravitate toward these communities because you are assured of getting the care you need when you need it if you can afford it.
- A step up from that, in terms of care, is pure assisted living. People who think they will live without going to any senior community sometimes end up in assisted living because they cannot manage at home without some assistance. They may need help dressing, bathing, mobility, or transferring from the bed to a chair. These are called activities of daily living (ADLs), and once you start needing help with two or three, you are a candidate for assisted living or for someone to live in and care for you on a 24-hour basis.
It turns out that assisted living can be less expensive than hiring someone to come to your home. Once again, this is a choice that people must make, but that is what assisted living is. It is not a nursing home; it is simply a place where you would have help when you need it with the things that you need.
- From there, a skilled nursing facility is probably something that all of us want to try and avoid, and we can avoid it for most of our life if we take care of ourselves and understand the other options.
In my mind, the worst thing is ending up in a skilled nursing facility somewhere I never planned to go and never did any research, so I do not know what skilled nursing facilities are available. Still, somebody might shunt me off to one because all of a sudden, I cannot take care of myself for a month, or two months, or maybe the rest of my life after a fall or serious illness.
So, I encourage people to research, think about the other kinds of senior living that are out there, and decide where they might want to go if they need something. I find it very challenging to talk people into visiting assisted living and continuing care communities because they do not want to be around a bunch of “old people.” Well, we are all marching in that direction.
For those willing to take the chance, find out what is in your community and pay them a visit. They are always happy to have visitors, probably now with masks and careful sign-ins, from the community who know they are there and are possibly thinking about them for future residence.
These are the traditional kinds of senior living, and now I want to discuss some less traditional ones. These are new social living models developing.
- One of my favorites is co-housing. This came from Denmark about 40 years ago, and there are now probably 200+ co-housing communities in the United States. I have visited a couple of them, and they are lovely concepts.
They are usually multi-generational; some raise their kids there, but now there is also elder co-housing. Everybody has their own home with their own kitchen, dining room, and whatnot, but co-housing is a situation where people commit to spending much of their lives as a community. They have two or three meals together every week, take turns cooking those meals, and have meetings to determine how things will be run. No professional company is running things as there would be in traditional senior living, and they are doing it themselves; co-housing is a grassroots effort.
- Another concept that is gaining traction is the village concept. They are geographic in nature, meaning that anybody in a geographic area is eligible to be a member, but just because you live there does not mean you are a member.
In the case of a village, people join and then are privileged to have specific tasks accomplished for them when they need them. For instance, if I join a village and need to have my roof replaced and I do not know a good roofer, I can go to the village concierges and ask for a vetted roofer.
- A NORC is a naturally occurring retirement community that can often happen in a condo or an apartment house.
- Home-sharing is just what it sounds like, a la the Golden Girls.
How ready are you for Solo Aging? I am hopeful that you have been able to look at your social support network, communicate with your loved ones about what you want, and think about where you want to live. Even thinking about your end-of-life issues is important to make the best decision about where you will live now and in the future.
About Sara Zeff Geber, PhD
Sara has a Ph.D. in Counseling and Human Behavior, a M.A. in Guidance and Counseling, and a B.A in Psychology. As a former management consultant, she has worked successfully, both nationally and internationally, with multi-billion dollar corporations, small to medium-size organizations, and forward-thinking individuals.
Dr. Sara Zeff Geber is a recipient of the “Influencers in Aging” designation by PBS’ Next Avenue. She is an author, retirement transition coach, and professional speaker on retirement and aging.
Dr. Geber is the author of the 2018 book, Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers: A Retirement and Aging Roadmap for Single and Childless Adults, which was selected that year as a “best book on aging well” by the Wall Street Journal.
Sara is a regular contributor to Forbes.com on the topics of aging and retirement. Over the past three years, Sara has written 50+ articles for Forbes.com and is one of the leading contributors in the area of retirement and aging.
Sara has also been quoted in The Huffington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other major media. A sought-after speaker at conferences on Aging, Sara is active in the American Society on Aging, the Life Planning Network, the Transition Network, the Sonoma County Section on Aging, and the Gerontological Society of America.
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©2022, Sara Zeff Geber, PhD. All rights reserved. Used with permission.