Not long before I turned 60, my husband and I split up, and a health concern that I’d never really worried about jumped out at me: What would I do, now alone, if I became seriously ill?
More and more of us are confronting this problem, especially as we slide — or stumble — from midlife to old age. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the aging cohort (those older than 65) is expected to reach 78 million by 2035, or more than 20 percent of the entire population. Sheila Warnock, co-author of “Share the Care: How to Organize a Group to Care for Someone Who Is Seriously Ill,” added: “A lot of older people are living alone, and that’s a big issue . . . in particular for women who are more likely to be widowed, divorced or single.”
Shortly after my separation came my trial run: A thyroid ultrasound initially appeared to show a malignancy that was soon declared normal. In the two dark days of waiting, I wondered: Who will take care of me? Whose shoulder will I cry on? Who will drive me to the doctor? Who? Who? Who?
A few months after my separation, some friends organized a birthday party to show me that I wasn’t really alone, that I had a friendship circle to rely on. I had joked about my anxieties around being single at 60 and noted that I was looking for volunteers to drive me to medical treatments, starting with an upcoming colonoscopy. The procedure requires mild sedation, and patients are not allowed to walk out on their own, even just to get in a taxi. My friend Daniel volunteered, but I hesitated because I didn’t think we were close enough for this particular assignment.
Lynn Feinberg, a policy adviser at AARP’s Public Policy Institute, said that the person usually relied on in this type of situation “would typically be a spouse or partner.”
Feinberg, 67 and a widow of 10 years, gave a sobering take on the question “Who will be taking care of our generation of older people?” She points out that 25 percent of adults 25 and older have never married. There’s greater childlessness than ever. We’re living longer than ever — hurrah! — but she’s aware that the diabetes epidemic and heart disease may mean that our children have shorter life spans than we do. “There’s also more divorce among people age 50 and over, doubling since the 1990s,” Feinberg noted. For those who do have kids, she says, the younger generation is more likely than not to live in another time zone.
So who would be my designated driver and companion? I recalled the humiliation of coming out of sedation after my first colonoscopy, a decade earlier, asking my then-husband 100 times in 10 minutes: “What time is it?” (Anesthesia impairs memory, and my mind was a sieve for several hours.) Oh, and you have to “pass wind” before they will let you leave. Of course, that’s what a spouse or partner is for.
I scheduled, canceled and rescheduled the procedure three times, partly because I didn’t know whom to ask. By that last time I realized a colonoscopy wasn’t just a colonoscopy, it was a big bad metaphor. What if I get sick?
I decided to ask my uncoupled Facebook friends what scared them about becoming ill. I was overwhelmed by the number of responses and by the universality of our fears. “Questions about shopping, cooking, housekeeping, transportation to medical appointments, handling finances, having sufficient funds, all arise,” posted one woman in her 60s. “I worry about having to leave my home,” commented another. Many others said they were terrified of having to depend on others.
And the mother of all fears: “Being alone, then dying alone.”
I have friends who have had various medical procedures. I’ve provided rides, made meals and waited while they’ve been probed or scanned. There’s a sweetness to being needed and stepping up. Years ago I took my new friend Charlotte to the hospital for an unplanned medical procedure. She was terrified and thousands of miles from her family. I stayed by her side — an experience that cemented a friendship now in its fourth decade.
My Facebook friends also made some worthwhile suggestions. “Sign up for Caring Bridge,” a free website that helps connect family and friends, Kate wrote. “Vet out your true blues among friends, commit to them as a true blue,” Carl posted. “Plan for who will watch over and be there for my 20-something kids — both emotionally and in terms of administering the financial stuff,” Susan added to the long thread. “Relocate to where you have friends and family,” wisely noted Jeff. A second Susan: “Groups of friends are organizing in Care Circles to help with this.” (These are model programs based on the idea that community is not only about geography but also about relationships.)
In “Share the Care,” Warnock has a number of practical suggestions, including getting your legal and medical affairs in order (and putting important documents where a trusted someone can find them). She also recommends that single people make an emergency contact list that includes doctors and family members and then put it on the refrigerator. And she suggests starting a “share the care” group in your neighborhood, which is really about building your own support network.
AARP’s Feinberg had her own list of suggestions. She sent me a link to the nonprofit’s livability tool, which scores neighborhoods and towns across the country for the services and amenities that have the greatest impact on older Americans. Other practical ideas include becoming engaged with your church or temple and seeking out a professional geriatric care manager. Feinberg also found a new partner. Mazel tov!
In the end, I asked my close friend Debbie, who knew my anxieties, to be my colonoscopy companion.
On the way home, she mentioned that she had been in the room when the doctor announced I couldn’t leave until I passed wind, an announcement I hadn’t heard because I was still out. We both laughed.