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Relationships

Me, myself and I: Starting over on your own when you're in your golden years

You think about the financial things, like will I have enough to live on, but you don't think about things like who will I go on holiday with, and who will get the warrant of fitness for the car? Who will make me my morning cup of tea?

For Marie Jones, one of the toughest moments came seven months after her husband Peter died.
She went to book tickets for a musical performance only to realise that she had nobody to go with.
"Peter would have loved to have gone, but none of my family or friends were interested," she tells.
"I didn't want to go on my own, so I ended up not going. That was one of the times that it hit me, 'Oh, he's really gone. I'm really on my own. This is my life now.'"
Although she'd always thought she would outlive her husband – he was five years older than her and had health issues – Marie (76) says being on her own for the last three years has been much harder to get used to than she expected.
"You don't really like to think about being the one who is left behind, even though you know it's probably inevitable. You think about the financial things, like will I have enough to live on, but you don't think about things like who will I go on holiday with, and who will get the warrant of fitness for the car? Who will make me my morning cup of tea? You feel very alone.
"I'm very lucky that I have a supportive family, but it's not quite the same."
There are many, many women like Marie who are facing a future alone later in life.
According to data from the 2013 census, 52 per cent of women over 75 were living alone, compared to 25 per cent of men.
Nearly two-thirds of all people living alone were divorced, separated or widowed, and for most of those living alone was not a choice but a result of circumstances.
Part of the reason women end up on their own later in life is because they have a greater life expectancy than men. They're likely to live to 83, while their husbands typically get to 79.
Plus, women often marry men a little older, which increases their chances of outliving their husbands, says Age Concern's Louise Rees.
"In many cases, women are left on their own for many years," she points out.
"And sometimes, these are women who have never lived on their own before. They went straight from living with their parents into the marital home and they've never been independent. So to find themselves on their own at this stage of life can really be quite frightening for them."
And it's not just widows who find themselves having to adjust to life on their own.
These days divorce among retired people has become more common, says Louise, who is the national social connection adviser for Age Concern.
"We are seeing more break-ups in older couples, which used to be unusual. It's being called 'silver separation', and it is a societal change. Divorce is not the taboo it once used to be and more people are thinking, 'This is not working; why should I stay with this person just because we are older?'"
Erin Lawlor (80) divorced long before she retired 10 years ago, so she has had plenty of time to get used to being single.
Despite being a very independent person, she says it can be tricky being on your own and that real effort needs to be made to interact with others.
Erin moved to Logan Campbell Retirement Village in Auckland last year and joins in activities there, such as the choir and an exercise group, as well as continuing outside interests such as belonging to a gardening club.
"If you make an effort, it does help with loneliness. I am used to being on my own now and I don't mind the quiet times; I like my own company. But you do need to make social connections because otherwise you could end up feeling lonely."
Connecting with people who have similar interests is just one way Erin has tried to combat any loneliness.
Loneliness is a real problem for elderly people, especially those who are on their own because their partner has died.
A US study found that feeling socially isolated can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It's associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety and cognitive decline.
Another study found that lonely people have a 64 per cent increased risk of developing dementia, which is thought to be partly due to a lack of mental stimulation.
Meanwhile, research carried out at the University of Otago has found that around one in every five elderly New Zealanders are lonely, and that older Kiwis who live alone are 43 per cent more likely to go into residential care, even if they were otherwise physically and mentally well for their age.
People who are lonely are more likely to go into care than those with health problems, such as incontinence, according to the study.
"This is why it is so important to stay in touch with friends, to join groups or maybe to volunteer," says Louise.
"Maintaining those social connections can make such a difference."
Louise says Age Concern comes across many cases of women who feel overwhelmed when they are widowed.
"First of all, they are grieving. They have lost their partner and are dealing with a terrible loss.
"Then they have to face a lot of practical changes and make decisions such as, where will I live? How am I going to pay all the bills on my own?"
In cases where couples have relied on New Zealand superannuation to cover a lot of their living costs, suddenly there will be a lot less money coming in. This may mean a change in living circumstances, which can be very disruptive.
"If you are faced with having to make these kinds of decisions after a divorce or death of a partner, it's important to talk things through with people you trust and, if necessary, get professional legal and financial advice," recommends Louise.
"Try not to make any hasty moves, especially if your partner or spouse was the one who always managed these things."
Often in a relationship, partners each have their own individual responsibilities, so when one is gone, the other struggles to take on tasks they've never had to do.
Marie adds, "I never had anything to do with the cars – Peter handled all of that – so I didn't know how to take a car for its warrant. I never mowed the lawn, I never changed a lightbulb; I didn't even know how to change the time on the digital clocks when we changed to daylight saving."
Louise says it makes sense to assess what you can and can't do in case you find yourself on your own.
"You should both have some basic understanding of what you would need to know if some-thing happened to your partner, for example, how to pay the bills if it's something they do. It's a conversation you really should have, and it doesn't have to be morbid – it's being practical."
Another issue older women face when they end up on their own is a loss of social confidence.
"If you've been together as a couple for a long time, you now have to interact with others as a single person," says Louise.
"It can change the dynamics of your relationships with other people and how they act towards you. Some people find that very difficult."
Louise points out that there can be positives to suddenly finding yourself on your own.
"You do need to find a new equilibrium and that can take time, but life can go on and it can be good. In fact, it can be empowering to learn to do things you've never had to do, and to have experiences you have always wanted to try.
"With the right support and help, you can move through that difficult period of finding yourself on your own to a point in your life where you can explore your own potential more fully and perhaps start doing things for yourself.
"There is still a lot to feel hopeful about."

Where to get support

• Age Concern runs a free Accredited Visiting Service, which arranges for volunteers to visit a lonely person aged 65 and over for about an hour a week to chat and enjoy shared interests. See ageconcern.org.nz
• Hono Mai is an online resource with lots of information and advice for older people who are feeling lonely and isolated. See honomai.nz

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