Anyone in my circle knows that I’m fairly obsessed with what it means to be an adult with no children of your own. I recently wrote an essay for The New York Times on this subject after I found myself paralyzed to write my will. While it’s certainly complicated to think about who will get your possessions after you’re gone, that process caused me to think a lot about legacy and connecting with younger people. Which is why the Gen2Gen campaign resonates so powerfully for me — when you’re not a parent, it takes intention to think about how you want to form relationships with the next generation.
That said, as I interviewed nonparents for my essay, by far the biggest concern that came up was who will provide the usual help we all need in our later years. Obviously, people with kids have to grapple with this question as well, but in most cases it’s the adult children who step into those roles.
While reporting that piece, I was pleased to discover Sara Geber and her new book, Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers, which is a comprehensive manual on everything you could ever think about when it comes to aging without adult children. I’ve had an ongoing email exchange with Geber over the past few months and below is an edited version of that conversation:
Q: What got you interested in this topic?
A: Somewhere in my late 50s, I started noticing many of my friends, clients, and colleagues spending a tremendous amount of time and resources taking care of their aging parents. One day, after a phone call with a very good friend, who was at that time on the other side of the country taking care of her 94-year-old father-in-law, I asked myself “who will do this for us?” The answer hit me like a ton of bricks: NO ONE. I realized then that we would have to figure it out for ourselves well ahead of time.
Q: I love that you’ve coined a sticky phrase, “solo agers,” for people who are aging without adult children. If we actually aspire to feel socially connected as we age, do you ever worry that the phrase suggests we are all alone in the end?
A: Hmmm…that’s rather existential! Being a practical optimist, I decided that there must be a way to plan our futures so that being alone in our final days was not likely to happen. As solo agers, we may have spent a good part of life “flying solo” in many respects, but that has not precluded building a robust social network. For many people – especially women – building networks comes naturally, but life does have a tendency to contract at the end, so we must do what we can to ensure that when we no longer drive or are less mobile in any form we still have people nearby that we can rely on for support and friendship.
Q: As you know, Encore is all about purpose, meaning and legacy in the second half of life. How do you see these issues playing out for ‘solo agers’ (including any advice you’d share)?
A: I’m a huge fan of Encore and the encouragement of all ages to live a life with meaning and purpose. I have found that for most older adults with children, a big chunk of ‘meaning and purpose’ is derived from being a parent and then a grandparent. Because Solo Agers, which I define as anyone who does not have children, do not have parenthood in their life’s equation, many of them have already figured out that meaning and purpose and legacy must come from other sources. In a way solo agers my not have as big a shift on that front as people whose lives have been shaped by being parents and grandparents.
Q: Connecting with younger people is so natural for people who have children. Do you see a lot of intentionality among solo agers in ensuring that they have relationships with younger people?
A: I think there is a tremendous amount of variability in the answer to this one. I have noticed that a few Solo Agers simply don’t care for children very much. They are more comfortable with people who are their contemporaries. However, most solo agers care as much as parents for the health and wellbeing of successive generations on our planet. Many solo agers have found a way to connect with younger generations all their lives – with nieces, nephews, children of friends; as teachers, tutors, and as an additional support system for any children within their sphere of influence.
Q: You dedicate lots of space in your book to the idea of planning. How would you suggest people think about essential life planning in a way that may dispel some of the fears that solo agers have around these issues?
A: Any fear in life is generally connected to what we don’t know. The more you learn about something, the less scary it becomes. I think this is true of planning as well. Without planning, the future is a vast unknown and for some, a very scary place. Facing the future head-on, acknowledging our fears, and making plans to be “safe” can go a long way toward dispelling those fears. If we know who will be making decisions on our behalf, know how much money we can safely spend each month, have a plan for where we will live when we can no longer take full care of ourselves, less if left to chance and fear.
Q. Why is the phenomenon of solo agers relevant to everyone, whether or not they are aging on their own?
A. Twenty percent of baby boomers are solo agers. If you aren’t one yourself, I bet you can point to several in your own family or among your friends and colleagues. Everyone knows a solo ager…or five. In addition, it is a societal and community issue. With such a high number of solo agers in our midst, everyone should be aware of it and encourage those they know to be vigilant in making plans for their future.