What would my life be like if I’d only followed my first story? That’s the story you’re born into and can’t do much to change. The second story is different. You can curate it; put the pieces together in different, more pleasing ways and even change the design to your liking.
Looking back, much of what I can remember is wanting to get away. My parents married late in life, both had been divorced twice when they met, and they were unsuited to family life. It was the 1950s, they moved to the suburbs, which was dominated by young couples producing large families. They were like fish out of water, and that sense of being different and out of place, plagued them.
My mother was a fashion plate who’d worked in posh women’s dress shops in Detroit and my father, well, he’d been involved in politics in Montreal.
Settling into the day-to-day existence of a hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone factory town, which Windsor was in those days and still is today, was hard on my mother who retreated into the home, cutting herself off from friends and family. My father kept his aching disappointment about what had happened to him during his wild days in Montreal under control, but it came out in surreptitious ways.
When I left home at 18, I knew how I didn’t want my life to turn out. It was back then, that I promised myself that my adult life would be decidedly different from theirs. As I have now reached the age when my parents’ lives became increasingly grim and isolated, I’ve given much thought to my second story; and with it, how to combat what appears to be the greatest impediment to a happy and meaningful retirement: loneliness.
In “Canada’s Loneliest People,” a recent Maclean’s magazine article, describes a portion of the population this way: “To have nobody means to have no children, spouse or friend still alive. It is to have no church group to belong to, no neighbour to eat a sandwich with or sibling to come over. If someone has a mailman or even a hydro meter reader who says hello, that greeting is a connection, but when somebody has nobody, the option is 911.”
It’s taken society a long while to recognize this situation and begin to do something about it. “While 25 per cent of Canadian seniors live alone, there lies a little-documented population within this demographic that live in acute isolation. Statistics Canada says it doesn’t have publishable data on a group now being labelled ‘elder orphans’—people who are 65 and older with no living spouse or children. The term evolved in American academia in the early 2000s and is most recently associated with a 2016 journal article by Maria Carney, a geriatric doctor at Hofstra University in New York who was the lead author of ‘Elder orphans hiding in plain sight: a growing vulnerable population.’ The paper deﬁnes ‘elder orphans as aged, childless, single people who are physically and/or socially isolated, and it found that 22 per cent of American seniors are at risk of becoming one.’”
In response to the article, this is what I what I would tell my younger self about turning sixty and about how to shape a second chapter that can become the most enjoyable time in life.
- Cherish the ties that bind. Even when you are so busy with work, children and keeping house that you can’t see straight, maintain your ties with friends and family. When life slows down after 60 and you have time to socialize, you’ll be glad you did.
- Be aware of your true interests, the ones that might not be work related. When you retire these interests can become the touchstones of your daily activities and bring you into contact with like-minded people who appreciate your choices, no matter how eccentric or grand.
- Stay put. Try not to move from city to city or neighbourhood to neighbourhood. As the Maclean’s article points out, connecting with the local grocer, hairdresser, drycleaner, or restaurant staff on a regular, first name basis can brighten your days.
- Be engaged. Don’t turn off the news or stop reading the paper. Even if it makes you jittery, getting involved in conversations about important world events is often much more positive than talking about personal issues. Read books that can make you an expert conversationalist and take you outside of your own dilemmas and worries.
- Be wary of advice that is not in your interest. The real estate agent who’s pestering you to sell your spacious home and downsize, the developer who promises that adult rural communities will make you happy, the financial advisor who wants you to put all your assets in an investment account. Be alert. You need to be shrewd and well-informed about protecting your unique goals.
- Focus on the good things in your past. When I recall my adolescence, I think of dancing with my boyfriend, under the lights of an open-air pavilion at Lake Erie, on sultry July nights. Or going to the Michigan State Fair at the end of August when the corn was high and the farm kids showed their prize calves. I remember the taste of cotton candy, hot dogs on sticks and fresh buttered corn.
My life is far from perfect. We all face obstacles as we age. I’ve made enough mistakes to join a lonely hearts club, but my husband, daughter, family and friends and my new writing career keep me in the game. These days, my second story seems to have a momentum all of it own and I’m eager to see where it takes me.