Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 369 (054) Being Alone

My friend, Dale, sits at sidewalk café every day. He reads, drinks a cup of coffee and minds his own business. Dale is a loner. He lives alone and dines alone. Dale is retired.  He is also dying of lung cancer.

The restaurant gave him a special cup with VIP written on it. His coffee is free – every day; compliments of a kind restaurant owner. It has been this way for the past 19 months; ever since he was diagnosed with asbestosis.  His childhood home was eight miles from an asbestos plant in Waukegan, Illinois.  Wind blew the invisible particles his way. It could have been that or it could have been from living and serving on board the ship that served as a base for L. Ron Hubbard and his church of Scientology for two years. The pipes in those ships were wrapped in asbestos.

Doctors gave Dale not more than six months to live. Hospice came on board. The six months have now evolved into 19 months and he continues to hang on. He goes to a gym three days a week. He goes for walks every morning along the coast. He sits on benches and gazes out at the sea. He moves slowly and silently among us. He lives in isolation; always has.

This is Retirement Talk. I’m Del Lowery

Social isolation is a major problem for retired people. We loose emotional contact. We loose people to care about. They move away or we do. Or they die. Our phone never rings. We stay home. Watch TV. Perhaps get a dog, a cat, or a bird. According to a recently published book on retirement, it is the major problem. When our work life ends many of us have a hard time adjusting to a role where we are not required to socialize with others. We retreat. We pull back. We have no claim to fame. We see ourselves as lacking of any worth to society. Slowly, we fade away.

Not a pretty picture. Dale is retirement age. He retired early; perhaps 15 years ago. He likes to read and that is what he has done. That and lift weights, walk, sit by the water, and drink coffee. He has chosen to not watch TV. He doesn’t own one. He doesn’t like noise. He doesn’t listen to radio. He doesn’t listen to music. He listens to the sea. He listens to a compact disc of ocean waves.

One evening in conversation with Dale he told me over his childhood. When he was just a baby his mother placed him in a crib in the kitchen and never picked him up, never hugged him, never kissed him, never showed any sign of affection. This was an accepted method of childrearing at the time. Books were written. Parents tried to do their best. They wanted to raise independent children. The literature said that every kiss, every hug, every sign of affection weakened the child. To raise independent people, parents needed to foster independent children. Dale is the end product. He stays to himself.

Social isolation became a way of life. He is accepting.  I would never use the word happy to describe Dale. After given the short time to live he has continued in his ways. We were having Dale over for dinner one night a week for many months since his medical assessment. Then he had a conflict on the night of our invitations. They have since become less frequent. I think the obligation of dinner was a bit of a strain on his routine.

He never joins groups or causes. No community projects for him; no church, no clubs, nothing. Dale is a Stanford graduate; bright guy and good listener. People like Dale, but there is a wall.  Emotional contact is absent. He is not happy nor even content. He can't seem to escape.

Social isolation is something most of us resist. We don’t like to be alone. We like to share a meal. We like to share a story. We like to share a life. However, some people choose differently, or at least live there life without these emotional bonds. Reasons why we are like we are - may remain a secret from all – including ourselves.

My Dad use to tell me to get up off the couch and do something with my life. He didn’t give directions as to where I was to move, or what I was to do. He just insisted that I go somewhere and do something. It stuck. I still have to get up and get out. My Dad never read books on childrearing, philosophy, or psychology. His formative years were lived on a farm during the depression. He knew the value of work and the value of putting yourself forward. I was lucky.

We all have to battle the inter feeling of isolation; the fact that we are born and die alone. The existentialists talk about it. Most of us strive to mitigate the condition. Family and friends serve the purpose. Then they drop away. We may be left to be as Longfellow wrote, “the last leaf upon the tree”. A friend of mine over coffee a few days ago said, "My good friend Al only has a few days left" Then he paused and looked down and went on, "It leaves me all alone. All my friends have died before me." One thing about it - if we don’t put out an effort to establish emotional contact we will find ourselves more and more alone. It isn't a pretty picture.

Since the previous podcast first aired Dale has long since died. May he rest in peace.

This is Retirement Talk.



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