Oh! Woe is me. According to the New York Times, I’m part of a growing national phenomenon, an “elder orphan”—no spouse, no kids, out here living alone. Received wisdom is that I should be scouting out a retirement community in an inexpensive and tax-friendly state (if I should ever retire), or at least a one-level house in a location cheaper than my current Washington, DC. And then I should be signing up for elder care and accident monitoring and God knows what else those telemarketers keep trying to sell me.
Instead, the gym is calling to ask when I’m going to get my butt back there (forgive me, I was in Portugal), and I have my heart set not on a modest suburban rambler but a co-op apartment in a big city, in this case my native New York.
The city sets the stage for the day I have to give up driving: New York is walkable. And it supplies my idea of a retirement home or community: a good building, which will have staff to do things for you, including walk the dog when you can’t or just don’t want to when living alone.
I used to think New York was perfect for growing old because everything—from furniture to a bagel and coffee—could be delivered to your door. With the internet, of course, that’s true just about everywhere, and I think a lot of us will be the better for it.
But here’s how presumptuous I am about living alone: I want the laundry and dry cleaner to deliver, too, and I want to shop for my groceries and cook in my trophy kitchen (if I manage to get one), but I want the supermarket to deliver the heavy things by bike.
That’s actually pretty close to what marketers have been predicting for years: that as we age we buy fewer things and instead buy more services. I’m more than happy to oblige. And I’m willing to bet I won’t be alone. The Times reported that by 2030, about 16 percent of women 80 to 84 will be childless, compared with about 12 percent in 2010, according to a 2013 report by AARP. I’m not near that age cohort yet, but then again, I’m not getting younger.
My laundry list of wishes ignores, of course, the real world of possible ill health, of age-related difficulty in getting around and the high cost of whichever medicines I’ll have to take to keep my heart beating and my kidneys functioning.
I’m prepared to ignore those realities for a while longer. What I will have to concentrate on is daily structure. Given my natural sloth, I, as a person with nothing that has to get done, could easily spend the day doing exactly that, nothing. Not good.
So as I take aim at a new apartment, I’m looking at buildings that will accept a dog (I’d love a 75 pounder, but that seems to be unrealistic). Those barks and whimpers are enough to get me out of bed at a reasonable hour, and I’ve learned how to keep a dog up late and therefore not start scratching the door at 6am.
It has to be an old dog, one with a little less bounce in his step, just like his owner. I adopted my last dog, Jeremiah, at age 9 (his age, not mine), and we walked and walked around Washington for hours each day. He was big (a Saint Bernard mix) and slow, but the boy loved to amble, and so we did. Jeremiah died this past winter a month shy of 14, so I gave him five good years—and vice versa.
The dog triggers the next good thing about a city—walking around in it. You’re never alone with a dog. The pup gives you cover to walk a little more slowly than the office-goers around you and is a built-in ice breaker with people you don’t know who are wandering around with their pups as well. There’s an entire world of dog owners, and I will be happy to be a part of it again.
Walking around the city is really just code for “getting out of the house.” I dread the notion that most of my outings would be doctor’s appointments. So joining something will be important too when living alone. I’ll be closer to family when I’m in New York, but maybe I will find a book club. Then there’s church—any church. And any number of charities—not the fancy ones whose events double as photo ops, but non-glamorous charities in need of worker bees. A city is full of those, and I think we’ve all learned by now that trying to do good for others in fact does us just as much good, even more.
Admittedly, this is not the most sensible or comprehensive plan for moving into old age on my own. But, I have a will and a trust agreement, and my siblings know where all my assets are. So with those things covered, I’m going to concentrate on living alone in the best possible way.