“The trouble is: You think you have time.”
That Buddhist-sounding quote from a fortune cookie rattled around the back of my head for decades, seemingly for no reason. Now that I find myself living with my 94-year-old mother in a Florida city where preacher Billy Graham got his start and being a never-wed 60-something has made me a tourist attraction of sorts, I finally understand why I thought the repercussions of growing old without a child or two would not apply to me: I was just plain delusional.
As a New Yorker flush with friends, freelance work, Broadway tickets and great Botox, I had apparently existed in some sort of fun, singles bubble. It was a lifestyle so rewarding that I never read even one article about the stresses of the “sandwich generation.” (Hey, the writers all seemed to be married women with children, so even on a boomer-to-boomer level, I could not relate.)
If there is good news to be gleaned, it’s that I’m most definitely not alone. Indeed, 25 million men and women - a whopping one-third of all 75 million baby boomers turning 52 to 70 this year - are doing so sans progeny. That doesn’t count boomer parents who have lost a child or have one who is severely impaired.
The Aging Solo pool also includes countless members of families plagued by addiction, disease, cults, rapacious children, even married progeny who much prefer their in-laws. While millions of Aging Soloists have siblings and other kin, many of us can’t imagine (or abide) having them shepherd us to our final rest.
This is not a story of remorse that I forgot to have a baby. Rather, I’m an Aging Solo pioneer, riding the front of the coming demographic tsunami. Contemplating our own age-related problems is not entirely within the boomer comfort zone, even when we are focused on taking care of our own elderly relatives.
We need a manifesto on how to age without children - but with our friends - from choosing the best place for us to grow old to making sure we know our best friends’ Plan B logistics before they all disappear on us. I’ve read extensively about how apps will change our future. Actually, those amazing Japanese robots that give you your meds on time, lead you in a daily workout and open the curtains sound infinitely more useful than yet another app aimed at helping us hire a last-minute dog walker.
My parents’ wild-eyed mistakes were instructive. My father, for example, died two years after he and my mother chose their retirement destination on the advice of someone whose brother sold real estate in New Port Richey, Fla. They had never visited the Sunshine State until they drove down from Richmond in time to meet the movers, then told and retold that story as if it were a point of pride.
Only now do I see it as the first in a chain of disastrous choices. Location is HUGE to anyone aging solo. One by one, once she reached 82, my widowed mother’s small circle of pals in New Port Richey had all died or moved closer to their children, leaving her surrounded by much younger couples with kids. She knew these families would never be her friends, no matter how hard she tried. “Just neighbors,” she sighed.
My parents had made plans for active retirement but not for old age. Having turned in her driver’s license and unable to walk a half-mile to the supermarket, my mother never imagined she had any choice except to stay put and try her best not to complain. She ended up cursed by dementia. At 91 and unable to cope, her fallback strategy kicked in: me.
An advertising executive and lifetime problem-solver, I felt sure that I could save her. But like any misguided New Yorker who’d spent little time in Florida, I was insanely off base thinking I could situate her in six months. Luckily, I thought, she was close to Tampa, so I got a job there, packed up her possessions, and together we sold her little house in New Port Richey.
But I was no brighter than my father. I assumed I’d chosen a real city. Wrong! I had flourished in Washington, Los Angeles and Manhattan, but never realized all three were rich in museums, parks, mass transit, theater and all manner of unmarrieds. In Tampa, culture meant children’s museums. There were no foreign films or documentaries, no world-class museums, no opening nights for new plays. People’s lives and leisure time revolved around their children. Single friends seemed like an afterthought.
Remember this: When you’re past 50 and single, location is 75 percent of the enchilada. Subways matter. Proximity to friends matters. Suburban seniors communities felt to me like slow death. I found senior centers and assisted-living facilities profoundly lonely because, it seems, the art of making friends does not grow as we age, and not everyone likes endless bingo and dominoes on Tuesdays, followed by a prayer service.
So, how is a single woman like me supposed to age without a Good Daughter? I had no answers as I wondered how we 25 million childless boomers would fare in our own hour of the wolf.
After watching my outgoing, ever optimistic mother madly flounder in a posh Tampa assisted-living facility, I pulled her out to care for her in my small, two-bedroom apartment. Since 2014, I’ve learned something vital: It’s better to plan a more personal assisted-living future with your own friends while in your 50s or 60s. That will give you time to choose a location with diverse people and culture, with neighborhoods that have sidewalks and public transit.
Sharing resources can spawn all sorts of possibilities. Maybe my posse grabs several apartments in rental, condo or co-op buildings, or we share a group house in D.C., Manhattan or L.A. Heck, maybe we can find a way to lease a floor in one of the many overbuilt office buildings around the country. Perhaps (if yours is an anti-urban posse) you can hire an architect to design space-age yurts in Arizona. Each madly hip structure would be self-contained, but the colony would have a common dining hall, gym and tech-support center, or whatever your future selves desire.
New to the finances of aging, I had no idea how much control I gained by holding my mother’s durable power of attorney. Had I been less ethical, I could have taken her money and run. Therefore, I’ll never give that power to any one person; it will be held by at least three younger and devoted friends because elder fraud is one of the most horrifying aspects of aging solo. Trust me: That charming new friend who offers to manage your money so you don’t have to deal with “all those bills” is probably well known to the local police.
Years ago, I was a creative director for AgeWave, a think tank focused on the gray army that would require endless new products. Only now do I realize that it takes far more than products for those with gnarled fingers and clouded eyes to age with some sort of purpose.
Some people might do well as members of a “senior village” - hyperlocal groups of neighbors, volunteers and paid staff who enable dues-paying members to age at home. It’s a great idea but still as spotty as mobile phone service. Of the 200 or so villages nationwide, more than 30 are in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, yet there are only four in all of Florida, and none in Tampa. And certainly not in New Port Richey.
Studies show that seniors want to live and die in their own home. Why not focus instead on aging with a close group of friends committed to collective living and decision-making, along with paperwork management? If we don’t become a highly visible Aging Solo movement, or at least sound a loud wake-up call, we’ll be sucked into a slow glide to a socially (and perhaps financially) impoverished old age. Luckily, reinvention is in our DNA. We went from hippies to yuppies to dot-commers in several amazing decades.
What am I doing? Well, I’ve started small, using Skype dialogues with my pals to research and download the legal papers - from wills to end-of-life instructions - that we will need, sooner or later. Now we’re aiming higher. Should we learn what to look for in a nurse’s rsum so we can find the right person to help us in our collective dotage? Should we hire a visionary architect to create a high-tech trailer park or a cluster of tiny homes built around communal buildings? Our ideas are still all over the map.
We hope we have time to execute our most appealing visions. Mostly, however, we pledge to be our own Best Friends. United. Forever. And no one has mentioned moving to Florida.