Octo Observations – Learning to Live Alone

How many have  had your lives upended when it is decided that a beloved spouse or partner must live separately from you? You try to plan ahead and accept the inevitable. But the sudden change from all you have known is a seismic jolt. You question whether it will be possible to manage “solo.” 

I am writing about my recent transition. Perhaps it will encourage others to have faith that it is possible to “go it alone”…given perseverance and patience.

Living by oneself results from many scenarios. These days a young couple can end a marriage rather easily. A relationship may fizzle before advancing to the commitment stage. (Young love can be fickle, and with luck, a learning experience.) I ache for military spouses whose loved ones have died in the line of duty. When the Wounded Warrior ads appear on TV, I choke up as pictures of limbless young men are surrounded by sad-eyed  wives and children…it is even more painful to hear widows tell their stories. Each scenario is gut-wrenching. 

About five weeks ago my husband John, afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease, dislocated his 16-year-old artificial hip while sleeping. At 1 a.m. he began howling in pain. I thought he was having a nightmare. I woke him and gave him Advil which was little more than a placebo. The next morning the head nurse ordered an ambulance trip to the hospital ER to readjust his prothesis. 

As John recovered in our Health Care facility, we learned, to our chagrin, that such a dislocation could recur, given the age of the hip and the ease with which it slipped out of place. The kindly orthopedist gave us the irrefutable facts: two more dislocations in 2021 would necessitate surgery. For a man like John of 86, this is anathema. 

The truth is daily physical therapy has helped John regain his strength and mobility, yet his mind cannot be fixed. Hence, last week he was moved to the lovely new Memory Care unit. As he was wheeled out of his Health Care room, a parade of caring staff celebrated his graduation to a “step-down” level amid applause and good cheer. My husband was beaming!

John is not aware that he won’t return to our cottage to live with me…..I cannot tell him, and even if he knew, why upset him? Thanks to our talented retail daughter Allison from Boston, she and I co-decorated John’s splendid room with meaningful memorabilia and pictures. 

The minute he entered his cheerful room, he smiled  broadly. He spied treasures representing his love of baseball, golf and his tenure as Princeton Class of 1957 President from 2012 to 2017, along with favorite framed photos. I loved his reaction. Hanging on the wall were two pictures from our cottage bedroom: his senior class college picture and an antiquated one of me at age 16! He loved to wake up in the morning and tell me, “I know where I am when I look at those pictures!”

There will be bumps along the way, as there are in any life altering changes. Yet, hopefully, John’s adjustment will be as smooth as possible. Already he is playing gin rummy with me, and has made friends with a former CPA, a fellow golfer named Herb. This is gratifying. Sadly many other residents are quite afflicted and unable to communicate coherently. My prayer is that my husband is spared that phase of Alzheimer’s. God is in charge, not I.

I am thankful for the multiple activities Memory Care affords. A marvelous 2020 college graduate is in charge of entertainment for the residents. She is perfect: empathetic, vivacious and creative. There are games, song fests, and discussions that invite those who wish to share travel experiences. John has been a willing participant. As our daughter Allison observed a few weeks ago, “Dad is lonely and BORED.” No longer. He actually looks forward to what will happen each day. And I am convinced he is more high functioning than he was before.

How lucky for us this transition occurred now. Even three or four months ago, John would not be allowed to see family members. For much too long ALL family visitations were forbidden. Little wonder that so many elderly patients lost the will to live. Sadly, as we all know, the Covid virus spread despite heroic efforts to keep folks safe.

Since John left our cottage, I visit him twice each day. Sometimes I take our pup Pippa to delight both of them. It was heartbreaking to hear him beg me to take him home. Often I struggled to hide tears. Thankfully, marvelous visits from our two daughters eased the transition especially for me, as they waited on weary mom hand and foot and distracted dad with card games and family stories. 

For the past two weeks I have been on my own. The house is quiet, unless I play music or turn on the TV. Funnily, I do not mind the quiet. It helps me think, to adjust, to sort through necessary tasks, to write and to set my own schedule. Any clutter is of my own making!

Looking back I realize that after our children left the nest for college, John was still in corporate life. He  traveled several days a month. I managed whatever happened by myself, including the time I tripped on a root while on a long walk, cracked a rib and had to hobble back home and take care of myself. I learned a lot. I know I am better equipped to “fly solo” as a result of those years. Sadly, though, this phase won’t end with the weekend. It will continue ad infinitum.

One evening during Seattle Susie’s visit, as she and I rehashed that day, I heard myself remark, “Susie, I feel like a Widow in Training.” Susie stopped for a minute and looked at me…..startled. Those words just popped out. But they are true. Anyone married to a spouse with an incurable disease can identify. Professionals call it is a grieving period, or “anticipatory grief.”

Since John’s Alzheimer’s was confirmed, I have had many difficult nights, plus episodes of spontaneous tears. Usually I have kept the sadness under control. But sometimes it spills over. Slowly, however, I am feeling better. Sleep helps, as does regular exercise and decent diet. (Oh, don’t forget chocolate and a wee sip of wine at night!!)

May I offer up a few suggestions for anyone in my situation? 

First of all, acknowledge your own pain. Don’t expect to be Pollyanna 24/7, as it is impossible. You can “Put on a Happy Face” most of the time, but it is perfectly okay to let down now and then. Say your goodbyes along the way.

Secondly, reach out to available professionals, family and closest friends. Amazing what a long-lingering lunch  or catchup phone call can do to ease concerns. Sharing your feelings, but also listening to others’ stories can assuage angst.

Thirdly, do something nice for someone else. A little bouquet of flowers from your yard for a more elderly neighbor….a phone call or email to a friend in need. And by all means, get together with good pals. Change your channels. Stop obsessing about your own problems.

Lastly, don’t forget to laugh and smile each day. Even in this topsy turvy world, there are always funny situations. Look for them, or help to create them. Find pleasure in nature…in the beauty of spring time, in the sight of a cuddly baby or scampering toddler. Joy is all around us.

Yes, I attend a monthly “on campus” Alzheimer’s support group. At first I was very reluctant. I did not want to hear others complain or admit my own fears. Surprisingly, these meetings have helped. And yesterday, perchance, I shared some meaningful words with a lady whose husband with advanced dementia is contentious and combative. Maybe her day was a bit brighter. Perhaps she realized that she should not “feel guilty” because he is unhappy…..now, she must begin to  take care of herself. The camaraderie was a lift for both of us.

Count your blessings, especially if these are the latter days of your life. When bad things happen to young people, it is devastating….but when sad things happen to old people, well, it is expected. We cannot be resentful. We must be grateful for all the good years.

Learning to live alone at any age is possible. Each of us has the power inside ourselves to make a success of it. That is not to say we don’t yearn for the happier days, but we can find meaning. Look around at those who are alone, and who are leading productive lives. They will inspire you.

Thanks to pithy quotes on the Internet, this caught my eye: 

It’s your road and yours alone. Others may walk it WITH you, but no one can walk it FOR you.” God Bless and Good Luck!

Joy Nevin is the author of Joy of Retirement – Live, Love, and Learn. Click to buy on Amazon.

Top photo: Bigstock

About Joy Nevin (69 Articles)
Joy Nevin was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. She graduated from Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, attended Connecticut College for Women for two years until she married John Nevin in 1957. Four children later, with twelve corporate moves in 20 years, the family learned flexibility. In 1990, with a nearly empty nest, Joy and John moved to Richmond, Virginia where they put down roots. Now in her eighties, Joy is the author of “Get Moving: A Joyful Search to Meet and Embrace Life Transitions” (2002) and “Joy of Retirement: Live, Love and Learn” (2015). Since 2016 she has written numerous articles for Woman Around Town on downsizing, moving to a retirement facility and her current series, Octo Observations. She is also a proud Grammy of nine, great grandmother of two…..AND forever grateful to Charlene Giannetti for supporting her passion for writing!