What Does It Mean to Grow Old Alone?Posted: July 8, 2015
On February 1st this year, my 78-year-old uncle suffered a severe seizure. Although he’s recovered physically, he hasn’t regained his former mental acuity. Following a hospital stay and stints at a nursing center and an assisted care home, he’s now living in a graduated-care senior living community. He can no longer drive and relies on the assisted living support in his new home for meals, house cleaning, and reminders on medications and bills.
The house he lived in for decades recently sold, a recognition that he’ll never go back to how he was. Just like that, he lost his independence in life.
When I first heard what had happened to Uncle Tom, I thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.” With every twist in his saga, I wonder if I’m looking at my own future. Tom and I are a lot alike, you see.
Like me, Tom has never married. I don’t know if he’s asexual or not (it’s not the type of thing he would ever talk about) but I’ve never known him to have any romantic or sexual relationships or interests. When I talked to my parents a few years ago about my own lack of interest in these things, and my expectation that I would never marry, I used Tom as an example to make it more relatable to them.
Tom lived alone in the house he inherited from my grandparents. He worked at a local supermarket – though he was long past retirement age, the health coverage he got through his labor union helped cover what Medicare doesn’t.
I don’t think he had a lot of friends, but almost every Sunday he and my dad would get together to play golf and talk. That particular Sunday, Dad was visiting Tom so they could watch the Super Bowl together. When Dad arrived, he found Tom unconscious on the floor.
Tom had called my mom a short time earlier to find out when my dad was expected to arrive, so we think he wasn’t in that state for too long. But what if Dad hadn’t been coming to visit? How long might Tom have remained there, or been ill or disoriented alone at home, before someone found him?
The year before this, Dad and Tom’s cousin Pat died. Like Tom, she had never married and she lived alone. It was apparently several days before the neighbors realized something was wrong and called 911, who found her. The thought of that happening to me still haunts me sometimes.
It haunts my mom too. She’s never pushed me to marry or to date or have romantic relationships, something I’m very thankful for. But she does worry about me ending up like Pat or Tom, with no one to help me or take care of me if I need it. It’s not something I’ve wanted to think about, and I put it out of my mind soon after Pat’s death. But Tom’s on-going saga keeps bringing it back into my thoughts.
What does it really mean to live alone your whole life? What does it mean to grow old on your own? When we talk about relationships, we often talk about love or about companionship, and those are important. But sometimes, it’s more basic than that. A relationship can also mean a person who is there to help you if you collapse during the day. Who can drive you to the doctor when you’re sick. Who takes care of things around the house when you’re not able.
For Tom, it was family who helped him through this crisis. My mom researched assisted care homes and senior living centers for him. She handled all his bills for three months until he was able to take back responsibility for them. She managed two changes of address with the post office for him. She found a lawyer and a realtor to handle selling his old house.
My dad drove two hours round trip almost every day for three months to the house, first by himself and then with Tom, to go through Tom’s belongings and determine what to keep, what to sell, and what to discard. He did the housecleaning and the yardwork here too.
One day my parents were leading their own lives, the next day they had taken on nearly complete responsibility for managing someone else’s. Because that’s what family does.
I’ve been humbled by my parents’ commitment to Tom. Humbled by their example, grateful to have them in my life – and inspired to think about how I can find someone who can do all that for me and be all that for me when my parents are gone.
The thing is, my parents are already serving as a safety net for me. While I live independently and manage my own affairs without issue, I’m limited in a way that many people aren’t. Due to a combination of sensory processing and anxiety issues, I’m not able to drive – I’ve learned from experience that it’s safer for myself and others that I’m not on the road.
I’ve arranged my life so that I can usually get by without a car. For both my job and my primary volunteer service, I work from home, providing services and connecting with colleagues online. Not having to commute makes life a lot easier for me. Most of the services and stores that I need to get to are within walking distance, or accessible by bus. It’s only rarely that I need to ask my parents to drive me somewhere that I can’t get to on my own.
Actually, there’s an exception to this. Almost every Sunday for the last 18 years, my mom and I have gotten together to do our grocery shopping and to talk about what’s going on in our lives. While I could walk or take the bus to the supermarket, it’s much more convenient with a car. These days, Safeway delivers, and that’s what I do when my parents are out of town.
But Mom and I have kept up our joint grocery shopping all these years because we value the time spent together and the talks that we have. There’s no substitute for human connection.
For 18 years, our weekly shopping date has been the one stable thing in my life. No other person has been as reliable for as long as Mom has. I certainly haven’t had the same friends all that time. For a lot of people in today’s world, even marriage often doesn’t last as long as this commitment has!
Although I didn’t realize this until recently, my shopping date with Mom parallels Uncle Tom’s weekly golf date with Dad. I really am living Tom’s life sometimes, aren’t I? Between the two of them, my parents have spent decades providing a simple form of companionship and emotional support for the two lifelong loners in the family. That humbles me too.
As I’ve been thinking about the future, I realized that I’m in a bit of a catch-22. Working and volunteering from home is a lifesaver. But it also means that the people I spend the most time with on a daily and weekly basis, and the people that I’m closest friends to (my co-workers and volunteer colleagues) live elsewhere in the country. The people that I’ve built the most dependability and trust with after my family would not be able to be there to handle the practical details of life if I ever needed help.
I’d like that to change. I’d like my future to be better than Uncle Tom’s present. I’d like to have more solutions than a senior living community to avoid cousin Pat’s fate. I’d like to find someone who can take on the role that my parents are filling, to have the commitment to me that they do. I know the emotional space I’d like a queerplatonic relationship to fill. This is its practical space.
Read more by Laura, here.
Laura P is a European-American convert to Islam, asexual, and queer. She is a contributor at The Asexual Agenda, a group blog for asexual spectrum individuals, and maintains a personal blog, Notes of an Asexual Muslim. You can also find her on Twitter at @muhajabah. She works in online tech support and volunteers with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative.