Solo in the Time of COVID-19
by Mary B. Young
“COVID has made me think a lot more about aging alone,” a 60-year-old widow told me. Her wife had died six years ago; they had no children. Although she has since found a new partner, she’s learned from experience that relationships don’t always last—especially as we age. Eventually, she could be single all over again, only this time older. “It’s a little scary,” she said.
COVID has stripped away whole chunks of “normal” life. What you’re left with, especially if you’re solo, could be a preview of your future. You can imagine, for example, no longer being able go places, or living in an apartment where you don’t know your neighbors, or in a rural area with few community supports.
Living through COVID is a little like a fire drill. It’s an annoyance but it gives you the chance to practice things might be helpful in a real fire. And, much as a fire drill uncovers vulnerabilities in a building or an emergency plan, COVID shines a harsh light on our vulnerabilities as individuals. For example:
- Are we connected enough to other people—extended family, friends, neighbors, professional helpers or advisors—that we feel safe and supported?
- Do we have interests and spend time in ways that we find satisfying and rejuvenating?
- Can we devise creative solutions to some of the new challenges that COVID presents?
- Do we find purpose and meaning in our days, whether it’s by reaching out to see how someone else is coping, tending tomato plants, writing our memoirs, or learning to paint?
- Do we take note of the good things and express gratitude for what others do?
You probably know people who are floundering in COVID and others who are doing just fine. What can you learn from them? What makes one person miserable and another thrive?
I think of an 80-year old who missed his pre-COVID poker dates with friends so he started playing online with strangers. Before long, he was playing simultaneous games, one after another, all day long, on both his phone and PC. While he still felt isolated, he couldn’t stop playing long enough to find other ways to connect with people.
Then I think of a woman who also felt isolated because of COVID, until she heard of a local group making masks for those who didn’t have them. From fabric scraps and even old clothes, she churned out mask after mask. Fellow sewers posted photos of their creations online. They traded elastic and spools of thread. Daily emails from the group’s leader reported a growing army of mask-makers and the many grateful recipients. She felt part of something larger, happy to be serving the greater good.
There is nothing intrinsically “better” about sewing than playing poker. Another person might have found that solitary stitching made them feel alone and miserable. The trick for each of us is to find the things that we can do—even in the midst of significant deprivations—and that pay us back with satisfaction, sometimes even joy. Eventually, this mask-maker might tire of the activity. Yet hopefully she has new insights about the kinds of pursuits that leave her feeling good at the end of the day.
COVID brings adversity and loss to us all. It may trigger fears that you’ll become an isolated elder. But it’s also an opportunity to take stock of the resources you already have―human connections, knowledge and skills, living arrangements, wellness, wisdom, technology, and sense of purpose― or could develop as an investment in your future. It might be a daily walk, alone or with a socially distanced friend. Or an online book club, yoga class, or study group. Or reaching out to neighbors who could use a friend.
Among the many lessons we can learn from COVID: Aging on your own doesn’t have to mean feeling lonely.
Mary Young, D.B.A. is Research Director for Davis Financial Group.