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No, You Don’t Have to Grow Old Alone

Black women are likelier than others to lack a partner or children at age 50. But stats on “kinlessness” ignore the bonds we create with sisters who aren’t blood.

After 15 years of being the solitary occupant of her Brooklyn apartment, Genea Martin, 47, finally started to renovate. The updates will let her comfortably spend the rest of her years in that spot — alone, if need be.

It’s not that the never-married New Yorker stopped dreaming of being romantically hitched up. For sure, being holed up at home alone — juggling texts, group chats, and FaceTime talks with coworkers, plus customer emails, and phone calls to do her job as a Verizon customer service associate virtually while the coronavirus rages — has reminded her that flying solo can be tough. A good man by her side might help calm her jitters about the higher health risks this pandemic poses for people with pre-existing illnesses. “If I had a companion that would be fine,” says Martin, who has diabetes and hypertension.

Still, she’s trying to stay upbeat. “I am thankful for this time alone, without the distractions, all the chitter-chatter. I’m more prayerful. I’m sitting and listening, instead of doing. I’m trying to get clearer about what my intentions are, day-to-day, and what I’m supposed to being doing long term. I’m making sure I take care of myself.”

A rising tally of Black women are aging alone

Self-care is critical for those in what a 2017 study classified as the nation’s rising group of kinless people. At age 50, they had no partner/spouse or biological children. Proportionately, more Black women fit that profile than any other group. In 2015, 1.1 million, or 10.5 percent of all Black women, were kinless. In 2060, that figure is projected to be 3.3 million, or 15.1 percent. “The numbers are quite staggering,” Penn State University sociologist Ashton Verdery, the study’s coauthor, tells Sisters From AARP.

Notice is being taken of all Americans, not just Black women, who are aging alone. Congress’ Social Capital Project, for example, is exploring how our connections to school, work, religious institutions and family factor into overall wellness.

Childless, never married and 59 years old, such linkages are my lifeblood. When my cat Roscoe died recently, the brother who’s courting me steadily phoned his condolences and care from many miles away. Coronavirus keeps us apart, physically, for now.

In my Arkansas hometown, where I spend part of the year, my six ride-or-die sisterfriends rallied: “Girl, you want us to come to the burial?” Judi Booth, a single, unmarried mom of one adult daughter, asked by phone from across town, of Roscoe’s backyard funeral. “You want some fried chicken? I got that,” insisted Felita McPeace, a childless divorcee who retired early in Dallas to oversee the care of her 80-something mother in Little Rock.

I pushed back. “Your love is enough for me. Stay home, be safe,” I told them.

Hedging against the hazards

Staying connected and involved with others can be a buffer against the heightened isolation, loneliness, depression and bodily ailments that often come with aging.

Aging optimally also must be strategic, says Rita Hargrave, a California geriatric psychiatrist and researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine’s ethnogeriatrics program. Black women, disproportionately, face financial pressures, Hargrave cautions. “If you layer onto that the costs of assisted care in a facility or in your home … and the whole health care piece, this gets much harder.” As one tool, she suggests consulting a geriatric care manager, a social worker of sorts who helps clients manage their affairs in their later years.

Planning for what’s ahead

Because of COVID-19, retired lobbyist Valerie Purnell, 61, of Los Angeles, has postponed what was to have been a May trip to check out senior living facilities in Georgia. She is now considering alternatives to group living arrangements. Single, childless and helping to care for her parents in California, Purnell plans to eventually move South, where two of her three sisters reside. One is single and childless, the other is a divorced mom of two. She’s grateful to have familial support and has found that self-isolating against the coronavirus “has strengthened my sense of belonging to a family. We now use FaceTime and Zoom to have a weekly meeting each Sunday with all of my sisters and immediate family members. We are also doing a lot more texting, especially humorous issues.” But those joys don’t change her awareness of aging alone. “It’s terrifying, actually, to think I may be in a space where there is only me and that I will have to rely on the kindness and resources of others for my well-being.”

Aiming to be self-reliant for as long as possible, Purnell is stepping up her game. When a knee injury from vigorous walking took two months to heal, Purnell says, laughing, “My sister said, ‘Girl, get a knee brace and keep it moving.’ … The ease with which one can sit on the toilet and get back up again, my physical health helps determine that.”

Attitude is everything

“When we talk about aging well, we’re generally talking about people who’ve tried to live well, with optimism and determination, all along. They didn’t wait until they were in their 60s and 70s,” says Cheryl Woodson, M.D., and board certified in geriatric medicine.

Outlook can shape destiny. Semiretired Jacquitta Ladson, 61, clung to that ideal while winning a fight against uterine cancer in 2013. Her inner circle of 10 married, divorced or never married women friends she’d met in college held her hand, brought food and jokes and washed her with their prayers throughout her treatment, says Ladson, a former project manager for a furniture company, who now sells CBD-based health supplements.

“I say to them that we have to — just have to — keep our physical selves together so that we can get through without having to rely on other people all the time,” Ladson says. “We may have to live tighter, closer going forward.” We must make room for each other.

“I’m coming to live with you in Arkansas one day,” my Brooklyn bestie Renee Jarvis, 61, single mom to an adult daughter , declared last year. I laughed, “Come on down, girl. I plan on having a husband, but you can stay with us.”

It’s a hope, that husband part. It’s a variation on a theme for many of us flying-solo sisters.

Confronting the raw realities of aging alone, as defined by researchers, is a soul-deep endeavor. It requires some optimism, putting two feet on the floor every heaven-sent day and declaring that we got this. It demands that we stay connected to blood kin and surrogate kin who’ll let us lean into them when, in body or spirit, we’re not quite as upright as we’d like.

Genea Martin has a sister-circle of seven single women — married, single and widowed — she met at church. “They have keys to my home,” she says, “…whatever happens, I expect them to ride it out with me.”

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