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The Importance of Community for Solo Agers

by Sara Zeff Geber, Ph.D. – Certified Retirement Coach

Moving into a senior living community is a big and important decision for everyone, yet it is even more critical for those who are on their own. I use the term “Solo Ager” to represent a variety of later-life circumstances. Under my definition, a Solo Ager might be any of the following:

  • An individual or couple who does not have children (with a partner or not)
  • An individual who never married or had children
  • An individual who lives alone since the divorce or death or a partner
  • An individual or couple whose children and/or other family live far away or are estranged

I include couples in this list because none of us has a crystal ball that will reveal to us who will outlive the other.

Solo Agers are becoming more prevalent as the baby boomers become the older generation, partly because of how mobile we have become as a society and partly because of some demographic shifts that took place in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s: Baby boomers were the first generation to have access to the birth control pill. That was a game changer for young women at the time. Choosing to have children or stay child-free was at last within their control. At the same time, the doors of higher education and previously male-dominated career fields were also opening up to women, thanks in part to the women’s liberation movement and equal opportunity legislation that was being passed during that decade.

A Pew Research study in 2010 concluded that 19.4% of baby boomer women had never given birth to children. Fast forward to 2021 and as we look behind us we can see a soaring divorce rate that started in the late 1970s and led to many more people ending up single, some of them child-free as well. What that means for us today is that many older adults are in circumstances in which they need to look out for themselves, making the best choices they can afford for safety and security in later life.

Spires residents Susi Edwards and Bob McTeer graciously told me about their backgrounds and what led them to the decision to make The Spires their home. Bob and Susi are both aging solo, having lost spouses several years ago. Their stories are similar in several ways: they both decided they were no longer interested or fully capable of taking care of large multi-story homes in somewhat isolated surroundings. What looks like a lovely suburban neighborhood can be a very lonely place if you are at a different point in your life than those around you and/or you don’t have much in common.

Susi has kids nearby, but they have their own lives and, being a self-proclaimed introvert, she wanted the opportunity to simply walk out her door and be social with whomever walked out of theirs at the same time. She liked the idea that The Spires offered her a variety of ways to be social at any time she wanted. Since Susi had lived in Rome, GA for a long time prior to making the move, she still has many friends in town. She reported to me that her friends who were still living on their own felt much more isolated during Covid than she felt here in her new home at The Spires.

Bob chose The Spires because he grew up nearby and has a sister who lives in Calhoun, GA. Having spent most of his adult life in Texas, he told me he considered a continuing care retirement community near Dallas, but thought it might be wise to relocate near his closest relative, his sister, who is 11 years younger than he. Like Susi, Bob has kids, but his kids aren’t close. His friendships with people from work gradually evaporated after he retired and he began to feel lonely in his Dallas neighborhood.

Both Bob and Susi were very forward-thinking in choosing a senior living community as their home at this time in their lives. They are among millions of older adults who either have no one to rely on later in life or they do not want to burden their kids with their care or cause constant worry about their well-being.

All solo agers should think long and hard about how they will spend the latter part of their lives. Good later-life planning includes not only legal and financial decisions but also serious consideration about the social needs that will not be as easily met when we are in our 80s and 90s as they were in an earlier part of our lives.