The Gifts and Burdens of the Solo Journey

Beth Misak |

By Beth Misak
July 2018

This is the fourth and final conversation in a series we’ve been having on modern retirement. The study entitled “8000 Days of Retirement”1 depicts today’s retirement as a dynamic period lasting 20 years or more. For those who become octogenarians, that’s one-quarter of their lives. There are shifts throughout this span of retirement, grouped into four phases.

The four phases according to MIT AgeLab are: the Honeymoon Phase, the Big Decision Phase, the Navigating Longevity Phase,and the Solo Journey Phase.

This month we will focus on the fourth phase, known as the Solo Journey phase.

Approximately 12 million Americans over age 65 live alone, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. The percentage of older adults who live alone quintupled from 6 percent in 1900 to a peak of 29 percent in 1990, and has slowly declined since then, to 26 percent in 2014.2

Whether from death, divorce, or personal choice, the “solo journey” phase of retired life includes both opportunities and challenges.

It can be a period of reinvention and renewal. Former interests can be revived and pursued. New friends and communities can be developed. Though it may seem counterintuitive, emotional wellbeing in older adulthood is high in comparison to other stages of life. Adults 75 years of age and older have the highest well-being rankings compared to younger counterparts.3 This pertains to their sense of purpose, social, financial, community, and physical wellbeing.

On the other hand, health or physical issues can abruptly change. A single catastrophic event, such as a fall or stroke, can immediately alter needs and lifestyle. Serious illness or disability of a spouse will greatly impact the wellbeing and safety of the household. Health events or illness may dictate the need for caregiver help on an occasional or daily basis.

Going the Distance

Women typically outlive men. They may need to take additional steps to ensure adequate resources and manage risk. Women comprise 69% of the 12.1 million older Americans living alone.4 One-person households are likely to take on new challenges or burdens. Rethinking living arrangements may become necessary. It also may be time to consider moving in with family or into an assisted-living or long-term care facility. On a brighter note, despite the difficult and painful experience of losing a spouse, many widows experience a welcome phase of regeneration. This can include travels and more time for friends and favorite activities.

A Helping Hand

The fourth retirement phase may result in conflict between family members. Disagreements may surface between older single adults and their grown children. For example, a well-meaning child becomes concerned about the safety of a parent’s driving or ability to live alone. For this reason, clear intentions and plans previously put in place, such as a power of attorney, health care proxies, and preferences for care, can help smooth out this period. It can also decrease the burden placed on adult children who would otherwise feel compelled to make decisions for and sometimes against the will of their parents.

Similar to the other phases of retirement, the “solo journey” period can be positively enhanced through awareness and proper planning. The inevitable declines of time and loss can be counterbalanced by the optimism of knowing that advancing years can also offer unprecedented levels of peace, wisdom, and contentment.

1Hartford Funds and MIT AgeLab
2American Psychological Association By the numbers: Older adults living alone May 2016, Vol 47, No. 5
3Gallup-Healthways, “State of American Well-Being,” 2015. Most recent data available used.
4Pew Research Center, “Smaller Share of Women Ages 65 and Older Are Living Alone,” 2016

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