Friday 14 December 2018

Mary Kenny: Lonely? Go solo!

Older people shouldn't be nervous about attending events alone

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Loneliness in older life is a perennial problem; anyone who writes a problem page will tell you that. It's one of the reasons why many people don't like having to retire: it's not just that they lose contact with the daily life of work but because they feel less connected with what's going on. Maybe they feel less needed.

There's a poignant moment in the Jack Lemmon movie About Schmidt, where his colleagues, bidding him farewell on his retirement, encourage him to pop by and see them any time. But they don't really mean it. When you're gone, you're gone.

On the brighter side, many older people make new lives for themselves, do a senior 'gap year' in travel, enrol in college courses for which there never was time or opportunity when they were young.

But as time goes by, and the funerals of friends and relations outnumber the weddings and christenings, old-age loneliness is an inevitable note. You suddenly realise that you have fewer people with whom to share memories or events. It's all very well saying that we should all make new friends as we grow older - and so we should - but it's a busy world out there, and new friends don't always have time to fit you into their overloaded schedules.

I'm fond of going to the theatre, but I seldom buy two tickets for any event these days, as I know there'll be a rigmarole of getting a companion to come along: "Thursday 10th? No, I'm babysitting for my daughter's kids that evening. Tuesday 15th? Hospital appointment in the afternoon, and I'll be in bits by the evening. Friday 18th? My Pilates class group are meeting for a get- together." People's lives are so crammed full of activities that it's easy to feel that everyone seems to need a social secretary (children definitely need social secretaries, to mark up their diary play-dates, sleepovers and multifarious extracurricular activities).

But there is a solution: go solo! Do things on your own, if there's no one around to share. Especially if the alternative is sitting at home staring at the four walls.

A caller to Joe Duffy recently highlighted this situation. Her name was Ann, and her complaint was that she was an older woman on her own, and the weekends were awful because she had no one to share outings. Yes, she had grown-up children and grandchildren but, though she got to see them all right, their lives seemed frantically busy, what with working and commuting and school and all the rest, which is often the way with young parents now. So she was so frequently alone.

I felt for Ann: but I also felt she could have done with some encouragement about going solo. For an older person in reasonable health, there's nothing to be feared about pursuing any social activity alone. It's a positive and proactive decision.

Studies claim that women over the age of 50 feel "invisible" - one study suggested this feeling of "invisibility" affected 66pc of older women. Yet there's an advantage in this. Being invisible means that nobody bothers you; it also means, paradoxically, that people are generally friendlier towards you, because of your apparent lesser significance.

A young woman in her prime is seldom invisible: young women complain of being leered at, or attracting sexual remarks, or being touched. It can be dangerous for young women to be too conspicuously on their own, because a psychopathic killer may be on the hunt for just such a prey, as was Alexander Pacteau, the brute who murdered the Cork student Karen Buckley in Glasgow in 2015. Older people too can be victims of crime, but they're more likely to be attacked in their own homes, rather than attending an event.

Older people, and particularly older women, should be assured that there's nothing amiss with going solo. And it's often practical. If you book a ticket for an outing, you don't have to fuss around with dates to suit a companion: you can just suit yourself. What's wrong with going off to a movie on your own? It's lovely. The Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin is a terrific venue for multiple choice movies, and it's a hospitable ambience for older people on their own.

Go on holiday alone? Why not? Give it a try. A long holiday alone may require a bit of a loner personality, sure. But a brief break is fine. A divorced friend of mine takes coach trips alone to Vienna and Barcelona - alone but with a group. She loves it.

Germaine Greer once complained that "the world is run by couples", and it sometimes seems so to those without a partner. Also, couples who have survived 30 years of marriage into their 60s or 70s tend to be, if anything, more hugger-mugger than ever - they do everything together, making single people feel all the more excluded.

Maybe some people feel self-conscious about being on their own in public, particularly in restaurants. If so, take a short book, newspaper or tablet with you. Nobody ever looks lonely absorbed in the written word.

The best place in the world to be a solo oldie is New York. You can ride those buses up and down the avenues and talk to strangers at will. An older woman alone is a source of unthreatening friendliness, and at moments like these you come to feel that there is freedom and self-fulfilment in the solo experience.


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