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On November 21, 2019, with lots of fanfare, Elon Musk introduced his new Tesla pickup truck to the world. The launch featured two tests. In the first test, the lead designer hit the truck’s door with a sledgehammer. It didn’t even leave a dent. For the second test, Musk threw a metal ball at the shatterproof window. It shattered. Embarrassed, he said “There’s always room for improvement.”

Similarly, as aging adults enter the fourth phase of retirement, they’re also testing. Many enter this phase alone. Adjusting to living alone requires trying out new things and experiences. Like the truck tests, some of these experiences will be smashing successes while others will be failures. But with a resilient attitude and some planning, retirees will find they can adjust and enjoy this phase of retirement.

 

First, What’s the Solo Journey Phase?

The MIT AgeLab calls the last period of retirement “The Solo Journey Phase.” As the title implies, many retirees begin this phase by themselves. And there are lots of retirees in this phase. In 2018, 44% of women and 24% of men over 75 were living alone.1

Since most retirees don’t prepare for this phase, it can be one that people don’t look forward to, filled with loneliness. People under 40 spend about 3.5 hours alone per day; that number jumps to 7 hours and 47 minutes for people 80 and older.2

In this phase, loneliness can be a serious problem for retirees as researchers have found that loneliness poses health risks. It can be as bad as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness can decrease longevity even more than being obese or physically inactive.3

 

Retirees In The Solo Journey Phase Spend Lots Of Time Alone

Source: The older you get the more time you spend alone. That can mean more health problems, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/10/19. Most recent data available.  

 

In this phase, loneliness is a serious problem for retirees as researchers have found that loneliness poses health risks. It can be as bad as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day or consuming more than six alcoholic drinks a day. Loneliness can decrease longevity even more than being obese or physically inactive.3

But the solo journey phase doesn’t have to be a time of prolonged loneliness. With an open mind and knowledge of what resources are available, this phase can help retirees find a new sense of purpose, social engagement, and a time to reinvent themselves. This is especially true for people who may have spent years in a caregiving role, caring for a sick spouse or relative.

 

Second, Why the Solo Journey Phase Happens

So how do people end up in the solo journey phase? One reason is obvious—when a spouse dies, the surviving spouse enters this phase. But there are other contributing factors. The divorce rate for people over 50 has been on the rise and has doubled since the 1990s.4

More people are entering this phase because they have fewer children. Even if they do have children, they may not live nearby. Baby boomers had fewer children than previous generations. By 2030, 16% of women 80-84 will be childless, compared with 12% in 2010.5

Health challenges can also cause people to enter the solo journey phase. A broken hip can wipe out your mobility, meaning you could be stuck at home and not able to go out and spend time with friends or family. Or a close friend could break a hip, meaning they won’t be able to go out and have fun with you. Hearing loss can also contribute to spending time alone. 

If people can’t hear well, understanding conversations can be difficult and frustrating—so they might withdraw socially, avoiding spending time with people or participating in group activities.

 

People Who Live Alone Spend Lots of Time by Themselves
Daily time spent alone (hours: minutes) of all measured time, among those ages 60 and older

Source: On average, older adults spend over half their waking hours alone, Pew Research Center, 7/3/19. Most recent data available.

 

Third, How to Thrive in the Solo Journey Phase

Just because retirees enter this phase alone, doesn’t mean they have to be lonely or even remain alone. To avoid isolation, you or your loved one will need to make an effort to find opportunities to spend time with others. One way to do that is by volunteering. Find a cause (aarp.org/giving-back) you care about and sign up to help. Follow CDC guidelines concerning getting together with others.

Museums, hospitals, churches, animal shelters, and schools are always looking for people to help out. Scientists have found that seniors who regularly volunteer have a lower risk of heart disease and live significantly longer than those who don’t. Plus, you’ll likely meet others who share similar interests. 

Apps can also help people find companionship. Stitch is an app that helps aging adults find companionship, and it’s not only about dating. Stitch promotes the idea of getting together in groups. Whether it’s a new movie, exhibit, or just dinner, they make it easy to meet others in a group setting.

Meetup is another way to meet other people in your areas with similar interests. Pick a category you’re interested in and Meetup will let you know of any local events that are taking place. Plus, if you’re not sure what you’re interested in, Meetup offers a wide variety of group events on topics such as outdoor adventures, technology, health and wellness, photography, cooking, hobbies and crafts, and many more. In essence, this app can help you meet new people, learn new things, find support, get out of your comfort zone, and pursue your passions.

 

Remaining Independent—and Not Having to Move

In this phase, you’ll likely want to maintain your independence and age in the home of your choice. Most want to stay out of assisted living or nursing homes if possible, and for good reason. The cost of those communities is high—the average annual cost for a nursing home is $105,882 and $51,600 for assisted living.6 Even though people want to age in their homes, if they’re not safe, it might not be possible.

 

The Loneliness Syndrome: A Lonely Lifestyle Can Be A Health Risk
LONELINESS IS AS RISKY AS...

Source: The Loneliest Generation: Americans, More Than Ever, Are Aging Alone, The Wall Street Journal, 12/11/18

 

Technology can help you remain in your home. While people may initially be uncomfortable with the idea of being monitored, it can help avoid serious emergencies. Alarm.com’s Wellness system uses sensors placed throughout the home to help caregivers know if there’s a problem, such as forgetting to lock doors, skipping meals, or inactivity.

Smart speakers like Alexa can also help around the house. Alexa can be used as an easy tool to control the thermostats and lighting but can also remind people to take medications or even assist them in calling someone if they need help. Medisafe can not only remind people when it’s time to take their medication and the correct dose but also when prescriptions are running low, whether to take the pills with water or food and what side effects might be attributable to the medication.

 

Getting Good Advice When You Need It Most

At some point as you age, you may need to create caregiving plans to care for aging parents, or you may even need caregiving services yourself. When families care for parents, it can cause tension or resentment. Some family members may feel like they’re doing or paying an unfair share. 

Decisions may need to be made about whether to move an aging parent into a child’s home or into assisted living. These are not easy decisions, and it can be hard for families to agree about what to do. A geriatric care manager, aka life care expert, can help families through these difficult decisions, including:

  • Address emotional concerns and worries
  • Coordinate medical services among several agencies
  • Facilitate the discussion of tough topics
  • Hire a team of caregivers and medical professionals
  • Make care recommendations and home visits
  • Make long-term and short-term care plans
  • Navigate families through complex issues

For this reason, clear intentions and plans previously put in place, such as a power of attorney, health care proxies, and more broadly, one’s preferences for care, can help make this period run smoothly and comfortably. Consolidating accounts into one bank, setting up online access to it, paying bills, and overseeing financial management can be handled from anywhere in the US by one person with a durable power of attorney for the aging parent.

This can also decrease the burden placed on adult children who would otherwise feel compelled to make decisions for, and sometimes, against the will of their parents. Elder law lawyers (agingcare.com/local/elder-law-attorneys) can draw up documents that make your intentions clear.

 

Maybe You’re Thinking, “Oh No, This Phase Sounds Depressing.”

As we age, as mental acuity and physical health may decline, it’s natural to think happiness and well-being will also decline. However, that’s not the case. Studies have shown that well-being tends to increase with aging.7, 8 Even in April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, aging adults had better emotional well-being than younger people.8 Additionally, a study found that during 2020–2021, a smaller percentage of older adults in the age groups 70-79, and 80 and older, reported fewer symptoms of anxiety or depression than younger groups.9

 

Americans 75+ have highest well-being Rankings

Source: “State of American Well-Being,” Gallup-Healthways, 2015. Most recent data available used.

 

3 Things to Remember About the Solo Journey Phase

First, the primary risk of the solo journey phase is loneliness. Second, there are lots of reasons retirees enter this phase, including having fewer children, losing a spouse, increasing divorce rates, and mobility challenges. Third, retirees should find ways to engage with others in this phase. Apps can help connect retirees with people and the things they enjoy.

 

Entering a New Phase of Life is Rarely Easy

Whether it’s moving to a new neighborhood, starting college, or starting a new job, life transitions can be difficult at first. If you’ve entered the solo journey phase because you’ve lost your spouse, you’ll need some time to grieve. If you’re feeling isolated, consider joining a grief group or meeting with a therapist. As you begin to adjust to this phase, experiment with new ways to spend your time, maintain your home, and make new friends. You’ll be surprised that some of these attempts feel like failures, like the Tesla window test, but over time you’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t. Eventually, you’ll embrace this phase as you build new relationships and routines.

 

Next Step

Retirees entering the solo journey phase need to find ways to spend quality time with others. Visit Stitch or Meetup to find events that interest them, and people who share those interests.

 

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2 This article is related to our popular 8,000 Days module. Click here to access additional content to share.

Sources:

1 Historical Living Arrangements of Adults, US Census Bureau, 11/21

2 The  older you get the more time you spend alone. That can mean more health problems, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/10/19. Most recent data available.

3 Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4/29/21

4 Why More Couples Are Divorcing at Older Ages (and After More Years of Marriage) Than Before — and What You Can Do to Avoid It, Everyday Health, 6/8/21

5 4 Steps to a Happy Single Retirement, Kiplinger, 4/21

6 Cost of Care Survey 2021, Genworth, 2021

7 Cognitive Health and Older Adults, National Institute on Aging, 10/20208 Why Older People Managed to Stay Happier Through the Pandemic, The New York Times, 3/22/219 2020 Profile of Older Americans, Administration for Community Living, 5/21

The MIT AgeLab and Next360 Partners are not affiliates or subsidiaries of Hartford Funds. 

Hartford Mutual Funds may or may not be invested in the companies referenced herein; however, no particular endorsement of any product or service is being made.

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