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The Solo Journey Phase: Fearing the Worst in Retirement

The Solo Journey Phase: Fearing the Worst in Retirement

| August 14, 2018

The fourth installment of our series on the phases of preparing for retirement focuses on what many people fear most: The possibility of being infirm, totally alone, penniless and vulnerable.

The MIT AgeLab calls this "The Solo Journey Phase of Retirement." Health or physical issues can abruptly come to the forefront. The probability of losing a spouse or life partner increases. However, with some planning beforehand the Solo Journey phase may ultimately open doors to new and enjoyable life experiences.

Step One: What is your plan for receiving assistance or care?

After years of helping others, the day will come when someone will need to help you. Frankly, as unappealing as the thought is, you truly do not want to leave this to chance. What can you do now to prepare for that time? Here are some action steps to take:

  • Make a list of everything you need someone to help you with on a daily basis before you need the assistance.
  • Research well- qualified professional caregivers in your area.
  • Visit several assisted living facilities and nursing homes nearby.
  • Determine who could be resources. Your children, grandchildren, relatives or friends may be happy to help—or they may shun you in your hour of need. Remember, they have plans and responsibilities of their own and may not want to sacrifice their lives on behalf of yours. And don't think guilt or obligation will force them into it. Have the discussion well in advance of an event so you understand who would be available to help you and to what extent.
  • Prepare your home's infrastructure to handle aging in place. At some point, hand rails may need to be installed. Bathroom door frames may need to be widened. Motorized lifts may need to be installed along stairways. You need not turn your home into a hospital ward. There are contractors who specialize in such work, in a subtle and aesthetically pleasing manner. 

Step Two: Tips for living alone

If moving in with a family member or into an assisted living or long-term care facility is not an option, planning for living alone should be completed ahead of time.

  • Consider where you want to live. Does your current community offer activities you enjoy and social situations where new friendships can be formed? Is it easy to get around, particularly without a car? Or will you need to move to a better location?
  • Get a pet. Having a pet at home can stave off loneliness. Dogs and cats can provide unconditional love and need care as well. If such a responsibility feels too large, even goldfish can provide many of the same benefits.
  • Become aware of what's available for delivery. Everything from fresh groceries to meals from your favorite restaurants to medications can be brought to your door.
  • Prepare for an emergency. Whether it's a medical emergency or a fire, technology can help in times of peril. Such equipment as emergency response systems and GPS locators are affordable and easy to obtain. In fact, a good smartphone or a voice-activated home speaker such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home or the old reliable Clapper will have many such features.
  • Host regular activities at your home. Create a social calendar. A weekly card game, a football-watching party, or regular Sunday meals with the family—with reciprocal invitations—will help you to continue being sociable and happy. 

Step Three: Reinventing yourself after being widowed

Though the pain of loss may linger for many years after, it is vital that you find ways to build a new life as a single person. Otherwise, the burden you hold inside may cause a decline in your health, as well as turn off your friends and family who try without success to help you turn the page.

There are many insightful books on this topic, including "The Tender Scar: Life After the Death of a Spouse," by Richard Maybry.

After a death or divorce, single women are particularly susceptible to the fear of becoming a "bag lady." According to a 2013 survey by the Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, it is a fear felt by nearly half of all women, even those with financial resources. Writer Lisa Schwarzbaum delved into this topic in a terrific essay in The New York Times Magazine on September 13, 2013.

Here are some steps to help you move forward after a loss:

  • Find a widow or widower mentor. Similar to a retirement mentor, they are people who have learned to cope with widowhood in a healthy way. They've overcome many of the challenges you may be experiencing.
  • Look forward to the future. Do you want to be more social? Travel more? Learn a new skill? Ask yourself, who do I want to be?
  • Associate with people who embrace the "new" you. Spend time with people who care about you and see you as you really are — a person with a new focus on life.
  • Reclaim your life as a total person. Learn to manage the responsibilities that your husband or wife once did. Learn to rely on yourself. 

In Part Five, I will share what I have learned about my own feelings and plans after delving deeply into life's final frontier.