Solos in Good Company
Mary B. Young
It began back in 2013. Manhattanite Wendl Kornfeld, then age 65, had been thinking a lot about what would happen as she and her husband aged. They didn’t have children. All the more reason for them to make a plan for whatever lay ahead.
So Kornfeld invited eight friends roughly her age—all of them childless and most of them single― to gather at her Upper-West-Side apartment. The discussion began with a topic that everyone could speak to: What did you do for your own parents as they grew older? Then she raised more difficult issue: Do you picture yourself receiving similar support as you age? If not, what’s your plan? Or if you don’t have one, tell us why. The conversation that followed was so good that her friends suggested other friends who might like to come to a similar session.
Over the course of that year, Kornfeld led four one-time groups about aging Solo (although no one called it that). Each time she heard the same feedback. “I’m so glad I can talk about this. I thought I was the only one. I felt embarrassed, sheepish.”
Perhaps the most assuring thing they took from the meeting was this: You’re not alone as a Solo. In fact, you’ve got plenty of company.
Those initial focus groups eventually spawned the next generation of Solo Aging groups, which Kornfeld has led, advised or helped create in greater-New York City and five other locations nationwide. It’s a model that could easily be replicated anywhere―including the Valley.
Here’s how it happened.
“Community as Family”
In 2014, Kornfeld’s rabbi suggested she create an ongoing group for Solos in their synagogue. Called Community As Family (CAF), it has been meeting monthly ever since. There were eight members at the beginning; today, 25 people participate and/or subscribe to the monthly newsletter. Most are in their 60s and 70s; the majority are single. The group also includes a few older adults who asked to join because they don’t expect their adult children can (or will) support them as they age, or don’t want to burden them.
The group gets together monthly at the temple. While the meetings had to be virtual during Covid, the traditional format had been to meet around a common table for refreshments. Kornfeld might begin by sharing a reading and introducing that evening’s topic: whether you need an aging life care manager; spotting frauds and scams; strengthening technical skills, and so on. Everyone chimes in to share experiences and questions. The final half-hour is for informal mingling. This part of the meeting is every bit as important as the earlier ones. CAF not only builds community within the room, but these connections also carry over to everyday life. Members often meet informally for music, theater, walking or eating out.
Groups of Solos also participate in temple programs, volunteering, and intergenerational activities. Not only has CAF spawned long-term friendships, but some friends have also become each other’s healthcare proxy or emergency contact.
Why a Group for Solos?
In addition to building social connections, CAF and similar groups members plan for the pragmatic aspects of Solo aging. According to Kornfeld, these include:
- Anticipating and accepting the changes that aging brings. What will you need as you grow older? What can you do now to prepare for that? How do you become an effective advocate for yourself as you age?
- Building an “A-Team” or “trusted personal network.” to support you. It could be made up of family (siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, etc.), friends, neighbors, colleagues, professionals (such as your financial planner and your estate planner), and community supports (your spiritual community, local senior services, and so on). Each person’s network is unique.
- Learning what resources are available to you and how they work—including the requirements to access them. Kornfeld stresses the importance of scenario-planning (what if this happens? Or that?) and troubleshooting. For example, would you actually qualify for a service that you assume you could call upon if needed? In addition to building social connections, CAF and similar groups members plan for the pragmatic aspects of Solo aging. According to Kornfeld, these include:
An Idea That’s Spreading
Within a church, temple, or other religious community, groups for Solos can meet an important need. Too often, older adults without a partner and/or children feel overlooked, particularly if their congregations cater primarily to the needs of families. In effect, says Kornfeld, Solos may “age out” of the very place that once provided solace, meaning and support, exactly when their need for these things may be increasing.
A key factor is that the group is ongoing, rather than a program with a specific end date. Some members have been active since the group was founded seven years ago. This continuity, and the fact that CAF is embedded in a larger, ongoing community, strengthens both the “community” and “family” parts of its mission. One side benefit is that CAF raises Solos’ visibility within the larger community, making it less likely that they’re overlooked.
Some clergy recognize this as a problem and want to do something about it. A group of rabbinical students visited Kornfeld’s temple to listen to the needs expressed by several constituencies—Solos as well as LGBTQ members and interfaith families. They wanted to learn what a congregation can do to become more inclusive. Kornfeld has been invited to speak to a variety of groups and professionals about the challenges of aging Solo and the supports that can make a difference.
Several other synagogues and churches have now created their own groups for Solos, adapting Kornfeld’s model. So have some community organizations. When Riverdale Senior Services in the Bronx realized how many Solos it served, the agency asked Kornfeld to help them start a group for Solos. A dozen people registered for the introductory meeting. Fifty people came. Since then, the group, who call themselves “Savvy Solos,” has continued to meet. Like CAF, the program emphasizes the practical side of aging solo while helping to build community within that population.
What about Here?
There aren’t many Solo groups out there yet, but their number is growing.
In a future Soloist article, we’ll describe several other models for Solo groups that are already up and running. Some are offered by an individual professional or firm that serves solo clients, others through community agencies. Some charge a fee. Several are completely virtual.
Which begs a fundamental question: How about here? And what would it take to start one? In Kornfeld’s case, it began with informal focus groups where she could test the waters. The Bronx community agency put up a poster inviting people to come. A radical first step, then, may be simply to name the issue, provide a space where Solos can talk to each other, and see how many come.
Kornfeld suggests kicking things off by asking the group, “What are the best things about being Solo at our age? What are the hardest things?”
By the end of the meeting, people will be feeling less freakish for aging solo, and less alone. Based on the discussion, there’s now a list of practical topics to address in future sessions. Equally important, the Solos group will be on its way to becoming a Solos community.
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