My friend, Marcia, is a vigorous woman in her early 80s. Thirty years ago, she moved into an apartment on Manhattan’s upper East side. Last year, I visited her place for the first time. There were bars outside her ground floor windows, but I didn’t see them when I stepped through the door because I was overwhelmed: the place smelled just like my mother’s!
My mother, like Marcia, had bought an apartment in Manhattan after her divorce and lived there for decades. Her place was in the upper West side, across town from Marcia’s, but shared some features: a refinished wood floor with scatter rugs; house plants atop the radiator cover beneath the window; piles of written material (magazines, newspapers, miscellaneous papers) stacked up in baskets set in corners. Artworks hung on Marcia’s walls that my mother would have loved. The nostalgia hit me hard.
How could the vibe be the same in two places widely separated in space and time? Both Mom and Marcia had been teachers, hence the profusion of paper. Or maybe the steam-powered radiators in both old buildings emitted something that wrung a similar flavor from the furniture?
But the two women had lived differently: Marcia still went to work and traveled often with friends and family, while my mom had stayed home in her later years. Marcia considered herself to be in excellent health – never mind those surgeries she’d undergone in past years – while my mom had issues with her blood pressure and her teeth.
I concluded that the main thing the two women had had in common was they’d both inhabited their New York apartments alone.
For a couple of years now, I have lived alone, and my behavior has certainly changed from when I cohabited with my late husband. Because there’s no one else to consult, no one whose tastes or eccentricities demand consideration, I have loosened up. I tack odd-ball illustrations on the walls; I talk to things in the kitchen, not just the plants, which are known to appreciate it, but to toasters and ice cube trays refusing to let go of their cubes.
I curse freely when vexed, and I make Alexa repeat the same song again and again, if I feel like it. I eat what I please and leave dirty dishes in the sink overnight and bits of leftovers in the fridge until mold renders them inedible. I make all the rules, and I love it.
Since there’s no one to tell what’s going on in my mind, though, I’ve become a busybody. When I take my daily walks, I can’t help chatting with perfect strangers. “Planning a birthday party?” I say to a woman wrestling balloons out of her car. “How far are you going?” I ask a teenager in Spandex packing two bottles of water on her back.
“Is your dog friendly?” I ask the man setting out garbage with one hand and pulling a leash with the other. I mean well, and no one has said “Buzz off, lady.” Not yet. It’s just a matter of time until my white hair stops protecting me from scorn, or something worse.
My freshman year college roommate has observed that it’s harder to make friends as we age. Finding new people has ceased to be organic: there are no more playgroups, sports tournaments, or after-hours office parties at which to strike up a conversation. New acquaintances don’t share as much life experience with us as older ones do, and it takes so much work to establish a friendship with any depth.
Another college friend has confessed that when she’s tired of rattling around her big house by herself, she sometimes goes to the supermarket just to talk to the clerks. For her, when the desire for human connection strikes, any face, preferably a smiling one, is better than none.
How are we older women living alone to find company when we want it? We know the time may come when dashing off to the supermarket just to feel human energy may no longer be feasible. Nor will we open a dating app just to see a smile.
My friend, Trish, has an answer. Her son and his fiancé are planning to move across the country and asked her to come with them. She doesn’t want to abandon her life here in Phoenix, but she couldn’t deny his logic: she’s in in her 70s, he’s worried about her taking care of her house when she can’t call him to come switch a breaker she can’t reach. And they would miss each other.
Trish hit upon a compromise. She agreed to move into a senior independent living apartment in a few years, and her son promises he will have a guest room available so she can spend summers in his new home. Big plus: a friend of hers already lives in the community she has chosen. In fact, that’s a big reason she chose it and the activities and services offered.
My late husband and I tried congregate living toward the end of his illness. He’d been house-bound for a while, so he loved the mobility the place afforded him. Until he became too ill to enjoy it. After I no longer needed to care for him, I moved out of the community because I didn’t like the institutional food and I could still change lightbulbs and drive myself anywhere I wanted to go.
My mother, who didn’t drive, used New York City’s extensive bus system to get around. She also made friends with the bus drivers on her regular route. I imagined I would follow her example and age in place, but without the buses.
When new, noisy neighbors began disrupting my peace, though, I began to reconsider. I’m healthy now but decrepitude is inevitable, and I’m at the age where I have to make decisions about the final stage of life.
My western metropolis lacks the abundant street life my mother enjoyed in New York, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Trish’s idea makes sense. When the real estate market allows, I will move into a condo in a development where a widowed friend already lives.
My friend and I are old enough to let each other go our own way. Yet she’ll be there to bring me back from the eye doctor when my pupils are dilated or whenever else I need her touch. And vice versa.
Will I still consider myself living alone? You bet, and relishing the freedom it bestows. I will keep on cussing loudly and sleeping on the couch when the spirit moves. Over the years, things may pile up in baskets in corners, like in Marcia’s place, and my condo may develop a characteristic smell that only visitors notice. I should be so lucky.
What does living alone mean to you? Has it been an adventure? Do you find yourself more liberated? What decisions have you had to make on your own? What have you planned for your later years?
Tags Getting Older