Learning to adult in middle age
February 20, 2021 10:11 AM   Subscribe

I've lived all my life with others, but eventually that will change, and the idea of being on my own in middle age is both exciting and terrifying. I could use some stories of what it's like.

I am a 49-year old woman who has lived all her life with either parents or spouse. I have no children. Spouse is long gone and I've no interest in dating. I do not make close friends. I live with my elderly mother and we look after one another, but she is in her 80s and I know eventually she will be gone. I don't know when that will happen so I don't know how much time I have to prepare, or what that should consist of. I have some distant siblings who are all busy with their own families. I have some savings; enough that I am not immediately worried about financial survival on my own, and I could probably get a simple retail job and do okay. My needs are very simple. I'm in the US but would love to move to a more sensible place, but I don't have any special skills.

It will be the first time in my life when I am answerable to no one but myself. I get to decide where I live, and how. If I want to zip off to Cancun and blow all my money on margaritas, I can do that. But I'll also be totally alone; if I fall down and break my neck I'll lie there until I die. The absolute aloneness and freedom feels like it will break my sanity entirely. I'll have no one to tell me that what I'm doing is stupid or wrong or required. I'm both excited and terrified. I think of total freedom like that being for young healthy people who go off on round the world trips and find love and adventure; I don't have any mental stories for what happens to middle-aged introverts who are suddenly on their own. I would really appreciate any books about people, especially women, in this situation. Fact books, including "here's what you should do to have a safe comfortable life" type, and fictional stories all welcome. Personal stories also welcome! Thank you on advance.
posted by The otter lady to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should have added; there is no home to inherit; once I am alone, I have no ties or responsibility except perhaps a dog, but also no place to live.
posted by The otter lady at 10:13 AM on February 20, 2021

Best answer: No helpful answer, but as a 49 year old recently divorced woman who will have an empty nest as soon as the pandemic lets my 19-year-old move back to college, I’m very interested in the answers you get.
posted by LizardBreath at 10:17 AM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Barbara Pym's Excellent Women seems like just the book you need (and is really and truly a delight to read, too).
posted by dizziest at 10:35 AM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might enjoy Live Alone and Like It, which I saw recommended here, bought and haven't yet got around to reading, but looks like good fun - it was written in the 30s but seems to have aged well. I'm in my mid-40s, f, and have lived on my own for years (so long I'm not sure what to advise you because to me it's as normal as breathing), so it was more of a novelty purchase for me. But I think it does have some good advice in terms of seeing this as an opportunity rather than a lack, and actively building the life you want.

I guess, off the top of my head, the biggest change may be that you do have to actively create a life. Nothing happens unless you make it happen, right down to conversation. When the normal times return, have a couple of regular weekly leisure activities outside the house. Invite people round occasionally. Involve yourself in communities outside the house, to the extent you feel comfortable. Have one or two friends or relatives that are your go-to people to text/message/phone to relate the inconsequential minutiae of your life, like the funny thing that happened on the way to the bus stop.

Apart from that, honestly, it's exactly like everybody else's life except there's nobody else in the house. You don't have to go sailing round the world or spending all your money on shoes or undergoing some kind of crazy transformation just because you live alone. Go to work, come home, watch some telly (or whatever), socialise a few times a week, get some regular exercise. You don't have to care for other people, but on the flip side, the buck always stops with you, it's always your turn to cook, wash up, clean the house, even when you're sick (though at least you don't have to take care of anyone but yourself when that happens).

Sounds like you're not necessarily expecting to work full time, which is very different from my situation - I need to work full time to pay the bills, and that plus commuting takes up a huge chunk of time so I'm not exactly footloose and fancy free. If you find time hanging heavy and you don't need to work, maybe find a volunteer role that you care about to give yourself a focus and structure. Something like volunteering can give you a real passion and meaning, which is helpful.

What else? Big decisions are hard. Things like buying and selling property, renovating, major financial decisions, are extraordinarily hard when you have to make them on your own and there's nobody else to reassure you you're not making a terrible mistake/share the feeling of stupidity if it all goes wrong. I don't know a way around that except be lucky enough to have another friend in the same position who you can at least talk these things through with.

When you meet other single people, befriend them if you can. They're easier to hang out with because you're both similarly free, you don't feel constantly aware of everyone else being coupled, you can support each other in the ways mentioned above, it normalises you and your life in an important way.
posted by penguin pie at 10:43 AM on February 20, 2021 [18 favorites]

Best answer: I think this depends a lot on your financial set up.

Someone I know sold her business in her early 50s and became single in her late 50s, at which point she moved to a new town. She seems to have a good life but she had enough money to buy a home outright and to live somewhat frugally off the remains of her business, some inheritance, and in a few years time she will qualify for a state pension. When we are not in a pandemic, she spends her time at in a choir, a recorder group, a book club and a few other social things, plus occasional vacations. She has longstanding friends living 1-2 hours drive away and has been developing friendships in her new town. I think she enjoys what she has set up, although the pandemic has been hard. As an introvert, her life looks great to me - some interaction with people, plenty of time alone.

It would be a different experience if she needed to get and work a minimum wage job - retail can be hard as you get older and it's actually hard where we are to find that kind of work, there are lots of applicants with experience for each job. What's easier to get as a late middle aged woman with limited job experience is low-paid care work, specifically the work of looking after older people in care homes - getting them washed and dressed and so on. The work can be hard and rewarding, or hard and exploitative depending on your employer.
posted by plonkee at 10:46 AM on February 20, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I think I wasn't the right audience for the book "Eat, Love, Pray". I'm not sure if you are, either, but I think you might be closer than me.
posted by aniola at 11:00 AM on February 20, 2021

Best answer: It sounds like this would be a big change for you. I hear that you are asking for narratives on how to understand what this change might feel like. I have a practical suggestion, though. What if you were to take some mini steps toward this now (for practice). Examples might be a 1 day road trip for yourself or practicing for some of the inevitables of day to day life on your own. I think one step at a time can make a big change feel slightly less daunting.
posted by rglass at 11:16 AM on February 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Although I lived alone for a few years in my 20s, I got married and had kids and lived with a spouse and kids for 20 some years.

The first year alone was just what you think. Both freedom and worrisome. I did come up with a plan in case of emergency. My neighbor would check on me, call or text, if they saw that I had not moved my car in a few days. I have to admit that after a few months, I never worried about the negatives. I never spent time wishing I had someone to grow old with. I was free to drink the milk out of the carton. Have ice cream for dinner. Then, after some more months, it became a non event. I was no longer do the things I never had a chance to do (I did them!) and no longer worried about dying alone. Soon life became "normal". Went to work, came home, made dinner, watched TV, surfed the internet, did the laundry, etc. Pretty boring actually. I did develop certain routines and habits. I tell you this because I did eventually meet someone in my 50s that was never married and had lived alone for 30 years. Same apartment for all those year.

What I found was that we both had developed our own routines and habits and often they conflicted. I think you will find it freedom to have no one accountable to even if you really are only accountable to say your mother in your mind. You will miss your mother, but you will no longer have to drive her to appointments, ask her what she wants at the grocery store, etc. While it may be a little more anxiety inducing, living alone is freedom.

And it is my experience that if you are not the type to fly to mexico and drink tequila now, you will not be once you are on your own. To plan for being alone, I would think about your dwelling. Will there be stairs to navigate? Can you park nearby and drag in 4 bags of groceries? Do you need to install things like grab bars just in case? Who will be your emergency contact? Distant siblings? If you have an animal, who will take care of it in an emergency?

Some people worry about security. Do you want an alarm? Install cameras? Get a gun? Also, plan for your digital life. When I die or become incapacitated, I have set up a way to get passwords to my kids, to get a list of what I have etc. For example, I have never deleted an email. Ever. I see my email as a record of my life in many ways. There are emails from attorney's that have documents attached that maybe one of my kids might want. Who knows. There are emails between me and friends, me and relatives that could yield a treasure trove of information for someone. Probably, no one will care, but I set it up so that a few people get my passwords after I am toast.

I personally would find doctors that are younger than me so that I could maintain the relationship through my aging years.

I did find it kind of odd for lack of a better word to know that I was alone and really no one might know or care if something happened to me. Being answerable to no one but yourself does not mean you are not accountable. Sometimes you or your conscious is the best accountability. You will find out a lot about yourself by the way you react knowing that no one knows how you are acting.
posted by AugustWest at 12:40 PM on February 20, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I never lived alone until I was 52. I do have a partner who lives nearby and I think that’s a big difference from feeling entirely alone in the world. But as far as the actual mechanics of my life, there is virtually no difference from when I was married other than I’m now the one who keeps track of car maintenance and taxes, etc. As far as advice, I’d say that even though you can hire out practically anything you can’t do yourself, it’s awfully nice to have a default person nearby, a friend who’s the one to drive you home from surgery or walk your dog when you’re sick or find you unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. (Is this the main reason people marry?) There are a lot of single middle-aged women in this world, shouldn’t be too hard to find someone. My mom has been single since her late 40s and she has always had a network of single women in the neighborhood. Not bosom friends, just steady friendly interactions. It works really well.
posted by HotToddy at 1:19 PM on February 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I have a modern book recommendation for you (though I enjoyed the Marjorie Hillis book too). The book is "The art of loving alone & loving it" by Jane Mathews, which covers many different aspects, I especially enjoyed the Audible audiobook version.
posted by AuroraSky at 1:34 PM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't quite tell from this whether you have no social ties and want none, or are merely anticipating that some day in the relatively near future you'll lose your closest one? Because they seem to call for different types of advice. In particular, the former is an advanced difficulty level.
posted by praemunire at 1:37 PM on February 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The most delightful thing for me is never feeling spied on or judged in my own home. Never having to sneak something I want because someone might disapprove of me for having it. Reading, listening to, watching whatever I care to, and no snide remarks from anybody. Having my own space -- truly my own, not encroached upon. Not having to conceal my mood when I'm at home. Letting disliked chores go for a bit (the world doesn't end if the mantel isn't dusted), and doing other chores however I prefer to (nobody cares how I fold socks any more).

I do want more Things to Do once the present situation eases... but honestly, I've done pretty okay without them, because for nearly the first time in my life I can feel completely comfortable in my own skin, in my own home.

That's been worth a lot to me.
posted by humbug at 1:40 PM on February 20, 2021 [18 favorites]

Best answer: I've lived alone for decades and now that I'm in my fifties I have no desire whatsoever for a partner or a FwB. Cishet woman, both parents gone, no nuclear or extended family ties.

I'm mostly retired and I live in Mexico most of the year now (US-born). I can converse in Spanish to some extent, and there are other global North immigrants nearby. But making deep and meaningful IRL connections is a) not my forte and b) not very doable at the moment.

I fill my days thusly in no particular order:

* recovery meetings via Zoom or IRC
* gardening
* music practice / lessons (voice)
* ambling around town via uncrowded streets and the local nature reserve
* reading / scanning social media / keeping up with online communities / listening to the radio / watching movies
* resistance exercise
* meditation / journaling
* food prep and storage
* occasional editing work for an online software testing community

If I could stand to clean up after pets or deal with nighttime racket, I would have a cat, but it's too much noise and mess for me.

The recent re-addition of music practice to the daily routine has been a huge win for all aspects of my wellbeing. If you have a hobby that you can really sink your teeth into, I'd recommend doing it.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 4:28 PM on February 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I love living alone! My advice to take things slowly -- weeks, months, years -- and see how you feel over time and make changes accordingly. Living abroad is cool but very hard and expensive, even in places that are supposedly "cheaper" than the US. Living in a city can mean easy access to fun activities but also can mean anonymity, which can be good or bad. Living in a small town can mean connection but it can also feeling smothered or isolated. I love having a pet and lots of plants, a garden to grow stuff, and spend hours puttering around my apartment. I call or text a friend or family member when I want to talk to people so I never feel lonely, although I credit this in part to a long stage of loneliness in my life. I am glad to live back in my home city/suburbs where many people share my values and so glad to be out of the rural place I lived for over a decade but I know some people feel the opposite. I live in the part of town that's not fancy or cool but where I was happy to visit growing up and I feel like I'm exactly where I should be. Like I felt that immediately, perhaps for the first time ever. I love to travel but I also love to be at home.

I agree with you: freedom is awesome but also a huge responsibility that can sometimes feel like a burden, at least at first. But ultimately it feels good: even if you choose to have more ties or limitations again, at least it will be your choice and that's a huge deal. Also, having no one to complain to or complain about is pretty amazing. I love tidying and cooking and caring for myself. It's a beautiful luxury to have! More and more people in the US and beyond are living alone, and many of us like it -- like in this episode of Death, Sex and Money. I've really been enjoying taking classes virtually and connecting with people that way. Volunteering is cool, too. I had two years of not working and living absolutely free; it was pretty rad, if hard at times, and I am grateful for it... but also not rushing to do it again any time soon, maybe in 5-10 years. I'm working again and more tied down; I like that, too. We'll see how I feel in a few years! That's something to keep in mind: few choices in life are final. You can always go back to where you are now, should you move, or go somewhere else!

I think it's less about what we do and where we live and more about our attitude about everything and ability to enjoy our own company!
posted by smorgasbord at 9:21 PM on February 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I finally started living on my own for the first time a few years ago. Like you, I was pretty apprehensive, but it has been THE BEST and I will never go back to cohabitation.

It's been the first time I've really grown into who I am as a person, figuring out what I want with my life and how I want to exist in the world. I hadn't realised how much I was squashing it all behind other people until they were gone!
posted by quacks like a duck at 10:56 AM on February 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of answers have covered the freedom and self-discovery aspects, but here's a deeper dive into the practicalities of what happens when you might need instrumental or informational support from others.

There's some context here in that some very introverted (as well as neurodivergent) women really only ever have close relationships with their family or a romantic partner and extremely weak social ties otherwise. Reading between the lines, it sounds like that might describe your circumstances? People in that situation may not have much experience with getting or giving practical support from or to someone outside that tight circle, which makes living alone a bit more challenging.

Most stories you hear about women happily living alone implicitly involve having at least just enough connection to others to have a reliable emergency contact. Long-term single women - even many introverts - tend to invest in the kinds of friendships where you can provide these benefits to each other without the enmeshedness of cohabitating or being BFFs. If you're not someone who's ever been able to easily make or maintain social ties, or if you're not accustomed to introvert-friendly ways of dealing with social reciprocity, it'll be a huge paradigm shift to take on, but a necessary one.

You mentioned the freedom of not having anyone there to tell you that what you're doing is stupid or wrong or required. That's good, you don't want those people interfering anyway! But are you accustomed to having people around you in similar situations (or who at least understand your circumstances), who can cheer you on or provide a sanity check? If you're adulting alone these types of people will be more valuable to you than they may have been previously, and they're important regardless of how much you enjoy your own company.
posted by blerghamot at 12:49 PM on February 21, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I've lived alone the last thirteen years, though supplemented by occasional international artist residencies that provide a continuing smorgasbord of brief roommate experiences (we'll see when those can resume...). In general, I really like living alone! There are some downsides - maybe the biggest to me is that you have to prepare your own food all the time - but for example, I like being able to run at midnight on my squeaky elliptical if I want to without bothering anyone, and I never have to wait for access to the bathroom or find its floor sopping wet when I enter it.

I do think that regardless of whether your friends are in the category of close vs. acquaintance, you will want to have some social outlets. Have you ever worked in a job or volunteer role for a long period of time before? In my experience, a lot of people as adults forge friendships with some of their coworkers; these are not usually instant but rather take time to build. I'd say it typically takes me a year. Hobby meetings can also provide companionship and socialization, but of course that requires that there be a hobby meeting near you for an interest you have, which isn't always the case. This is to say that you might want to consider picking up a job not only to supplement your finances, but also to connect with others.

Also keep in mind that if you end up finding that you don't like living alone, there are always roommates, social apartment complexes, commune options, invitations to host international students, etc. to be had.
posted by vegartanipla at 6:40 PM on February 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

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