Being old and alone is undoubtedly a common fear, and one that motivates a great deal of irrational behavior – not least starting a family with the wrong person! But what about those who, for whatever reason, really do find themselves aging alone? According to Richard Watson, in his book Future Files, living alone will be a major 21st century trend.
Children as the Answer
People age alone for all sorts of reasons. And it isn’t always through choice. Though they deny it, people often have children out of a sense of fear. They do not want to be old and alone: friends move away, life partners cheat or leave, but your child is always your child.
And yet the brutal truth is that you never know what you are going to get; look at any big family and you will be struck by the differences: one child shy and gentle, another obnoxious and loud. No matter how much love and care you invest in them, things can go wrong.
Take addiction, for example. Right now an opioid crisis is gripping the USA. Plenty of well-loved, well-educated children have succumbed, in spite of the warnings. No matter how hard you try, there are no guarantees. Towards the end of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, a surgeon looks out of the window of his London apartment and reflects “It can’t just be class or opportunities – the drunks and junkies come from all kinds of backgrounds,” before wondering if genetics explain it, those “invisible folds and kinks of character, written in code, at the level of the molecule.”
Many things spoil the dream of supportive children who run you to the hospital. For a start, some aren’t the nurturing type: they drift away, travel, settle in another state or country, and so on. Some have children with a man or woman you cannot stand, or who cannot stand you. Sometimes, due to addiction, mental illness, chronic physical illness, etc., it is the parents who become the long-term carers.
When people have children they often complain that old friendships die; they haven’t the time or energy to maintain them, let alone forge new ones. Without children of your own, you do have time. Take advantage of that fact. As Polonius says in Hamlet, when you know a friend is loyal and loving, “Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel”!
You also have the opportunity to make yourself a better friend. It’s no good setting out to meet new people if they find you arrogant or dull. Perhaps the two most common complaints people make about their friends is that they are self-centered or miserable. Another major flaw is using others to boost your own ego. Make people feel good about themselves, cheer them up, renew their interest in the world, and you will be popular.
It is also important to work on your conversation skills. Remember, the bored are always boring, so read, keep up with the latest films and music, watch the news, and stay engaged. Above all, listen to what other people say. And prove you were doing so by replying to what they have just said. Many simply wait for others to finish and then launch into a monologue about whatever is on their mind.
Health and Fitness
Many childless people dread not only being old and alone but being old, ill and alone. Worst would be a slow, progressive illness, something that both causes pain and leaves you immobile. That in turn means being trapped in your home or apartment, which means isolation and depression. It would also mean you couldn’t exercise. In itself that virtually guarantees other health issues, such as weight gain, circulation problems, etc. Ignore the clichéd nonsense about not wanting to live forever. It isn’t a question of increasing your lifespan but of increasing your health span. In other words, the number of healthy, active years in the run-up to death. Or, to put it another way, minimizing the time in which you are bedbound and helpless.
And do not assume that health and lifespan are determined solely by your genes. People often use that as an excuse for drinking more beer and eating more junk food. It is certainly true that someone whose parents lived into their 90s has a better than average chance himself. But, as the Danish journalist Lone Frank remarked, your genes are not a straightjacket but a baggy sweater: epigenetics has taught us that genes can be switched on or off by stress, diet, and numerous others things. Someone who would agree with this is Charles Clark, consultant surgeon and author of The Age Revolution, who argues that “most of the dreadful conditions associated with aging – such as heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes – are determined more by our lifestyle than by age.”
It isn’t that Sarah or John have reached 80 and are therefore doomed to cancer or a stroke. The problem, argues Clark, is that whereas John’s teenage neighbour smokes, he has only done so for five years; John has smoked for 60. Sarah’s 25-year-old niece is obese, but it is Sarah who will develop heart disease or diabetes because her body has been obese for longer. People live badly and store up trouble; those who live well do not.
Exercise is also important. But do not overdo it. Too much exercise can cripple your back and wear away joints. If it is too brutal or extreme, it can also cause inflammation, which plays a role in disease; swimming, walking, yoga, pilates, etc., are best. Above all, be careful with your diet. As Clark writes, ” ‘You are what you eat’ is more true than you realise.” By living on fruit and vegetables and cutting out refined carbs and junk food, you help your cells clear waste before it accumulates. The body ages because cells grow less efficient and waste products build.
It would be worth reading up on the so-called “blue zones” as well: those societies in which people live an exceptionally long time, such as Okinawa and Sardinia. They do not experience the same misery and infirmity as old people in London or New York. Instead, they frequently reach their 90s or 100s in a relatively active, healthy state and then suddenly collapse while gardening or fishing – or simply die in their sleep.
Curiosity and Creativity
One of the main problems faced by single, childless people is the sense of disconnection and meaninglessness. Relationships and children not only give a sense of purpose, they also connect you to the wider community and help you bond with others. One of the first things people do when they meet someone new is show them photographs of their wife, husband or children. And children form a major topic of conversation.
Being single and alone does not mean your life is empty or futile. People who do have children, however, can sometimes make you feel that way. Often, that is because they resent you. This is especially true when they find family life more difficult and stressful than they expected. Their single, childless neighbour enjoys more space and freedom, and so they get their revenge via spiteful remarks. If the childless neighbour is in fact unhappy about their status, such remarks hurt.
The key is to find meaning and purpose elsewhere. Many artists and writers remain single and childless all their lives. Sometimes, this is deliberate. They wish to devote all their time and energy to painting, sculpture, or poetry and fear that the constant demands of family life would prevent this. Sometimes, they simply feel no need for a family: poetry or music are all they want.
But you don’t need to be a great artist to find this kind of satisfaction. Indeed, you needn’t have any interest in art at all. Just try to be curious and engaged. Read popular science books, and look at the world around you.
Few phrases are so irritating as “spiritual but not religious.” This usually means someone has cherry picked the bits they like from various religions and New Age philosophies and ditched the rest. “Spiritual” means different things to different people. To some, it is synonymous with “supernatural,” but it needn’t be. Used in its broadest sense, it means anything that lifts you out of your narrow, frightened, time-bound self. For many, their children and grandchildren provide this. Those who do not have this need some other escape.
Ego is Latin for “I,” and the more focussed you are on it, the harder aging will be. For people living in secular, individualistic societies like the UK, US, Canada, France, etc., this sense of being a separate little ego ‘inside’ the body and in competition with other egos is a huge problem. Our modern sense of self depends on time: I am me because of what happened in the past and what I intend to do in the future – because of ‘my story’. For those who wanted children but could not have them, who lost their child, or who became estranged, their ‘story’ is a painful one.
Meditation is especially effective. The ego depends on thought and time. In meditation you learn to detach yourself from both. You feel the ego as a tight knot behind the eyes, obsessed with past and future. With practise, that little knot uncoils. Such practises are best combined with an immersion in nature: swim in the sea and feel yourself at one with the waves, lie on the grass and look up at the stars. Even science can act as a sort of release. Astronomy, for example, will take you away from the here, geology from the now. The point is to see your little ego, your little life, in a greater context.
As with so many things in life, perspective is key. If you view your life as miserable and sad, that is what you will experience. Instead, embrace your single, childless status. Take advantage of the space and freedom and you may be surprised by the result. Above all, stay fit, keep socializing, and remain engaged with the world.