Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


597 Being Alone in Retirement

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

Social isolation is a major problem for retired people. We loose emotional contact with other people. Our phone never rings. There are no knocks on the door. 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 for the retired.

When our work life ends many of us have a hard time adjusting to life when we are not required to socialize with others. We retreat. We pull back. We have no claim to fame for anything to anyone. We see ourselves as not having any worth to society. Ever so slowly we fade away. Not a pretty picture.

I want to tell you a story about a good friend of mine whose life raised this issue to paramount importance in my mind. It makes me consider the prospect of social isolation in my retirement years on a daily basis.

My friend, Dale sat at a sidewalk cafe every day. He read, drank a cup of coffee and minded his own business. Dale was a loner. He dined alone, lived alone and faced death alone. He had lung cancer.

The restaurant gave him a special cup with VIP printed on it in big letters. His coffee was free ever day, compliments of the owner. It has been this way ever since he was diagnosed with Asbestosis.

His childhood home was 8 miles from an asbestos plant in Waukegan, Illinois. Wind may have blown the invisible particles his way. Doctors gave him not more than six months to live. Hospice came on board. The six month expanded into twenty-four months. He continued to hang on. He went to a gym three days a week. He went for walks every morning along the coast. He sat on the occasional bench and gazed out at the sea. He moved slowly and silently among us. He lived in social isolation. Always had. The asbestos may have come from his two years working on board the ship of L. Ron Hubbard the founder of Scientology. Dale had become obsessed with it when he was fresh out of college. He had interesting tales to tell.

Dale retired early, perhaps when he was around 50. He wasn't wealthy but he was very frugal. He had low economic needs or wishes. He liked to read. The local library provided him the books. And that is what he has done. He read. He also lift weights at the gym, walked, sat by the seaside and drank coffee. He chose not to watch television; he never own one. He didn't like noise. He didn't listen to the radio. He didn't listen to music. He listened to the sea. He has a disc of ocean wave sounds to satisfy his listening needs.

When he was a child 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. I have read that this was one accepted method of child rearing at the time. Books were written advocating that. Parents tried to do their best. They tried to raise independent children. The thought went that every hug, every kiss, every sign of affection weakened the child. To foster independent people parents needed to raise independent children. Dale is the end product. He stays to himself.

Social isolation became a way of life. While it may Look sad to some, me for example, he is accepting. After being given a 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 usual invitations. They became less frequent. I think the obligation of dinner was a bit of a strain on his usual routine. He never joined any groups or causes; no community projects for him. No church, no clubs, nothing.

Dale was Stanford graduate. Bright guy and a great listener. People like Dale but there was a wall. Emotional contact is absent. I feel privileged to have broken in just a little.

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 their life without these emotional bonds. The true reasons why we live like we do 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 rarely gave directions as to where I was to go 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 child rearing, philosophy or psychology. His formative years were spent on a Midwestern farm during the depression. He knew the value of work and putting yourself forward. I consider myself lucky.

We all have to battle the inner feeling of isolation and the fact that we are born and die alone. The existentialist talk about it. We strive to mitigate the condition. Family and friends serve the purpose. Then they drop away. We may be left to be the last leaf upon the tree. One thing about it: if we don't put out an effort to establish and maintain emotional contact we will find ourselves more and more alone.

I feel like I must share with you Dale's end. His lungs got progressively worse. They became hardened. He couldn't breath. There was no expansion. I vividly recall being with him his last night in his apartment before he entered a nursing home and his standing, cheek pressed against the wall, hands spread, and gently sliding along in search for feeling or some sort of contact. He died shortly after entering the nursing home under hospice care. His sister and husband came from the east coast. At an early morning hour a Unitarian minister, two other friends and my wife and I spread his ashes on the bay. My wife placed a handful of flowers on the water and we watched as they and Dale drifted out together.

This is Retirement Talk.

If you have questions, comments or suggestions contact












Follow Retirement Talk on Facebook: on Facebook