SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
By Jane Gross
More boomers, especially women, are treasuring our independence -- even if we're in a relationship
In my 20s and 30s, every man I dated went on and on (and on and on) about wanting his space; all I wanted was joined-at-the-hip, happily-ever-after togetherness, with babies, even a mother-in-law. My younger brother's wedding was one of the most unpleasant days of my life, with the expression on my mother's face so unmistakable she might as well have been interrupting the toasts to point at me and call out, "Old maid!" or "Cat lady!"
Back then, I was not like Bella DePaulo, the "single at heart" social psychologist who coined the terms "matromania" and "singleism" and who describes herself as living most authentically and meaningfully alone. If someone wanted to know why I wasn't married, especially as my career took off and the younger women I mentored assumed I had made some bold feminist choice, I always answered honestly: "Because nobody asked me."
Who Needs Marriage?
That remains true. I'm 65 now and it is still a fact that nobody has ever asked me, except now I know that this is the life I was meant to live. I, too, am single at heart. Am I selfish or independent? Happy or rationalizing? I know that I'm greedy for the quiet of my own home at the end of a long day. And I'm grateful not to have to sit through movies I don't want to see, stay at parties longer than necessary, eat at "proper" meal times, collect towels from the floor or have someone follow me from room to room, expecting me to talk when I don't feel like talking.
Autonomy vs. intimacy and alone time vs. together time are surely part of the push-and-pull of many married people's lives. They are worthy topics for therapy, I suppose, but for me, they're beside the point. There is nobody here but me, so what difference does it make?
These days, as it happens, I'm not at all unusual. There is ample data that we boomers are going it alone in historic numbers and a good deal of anecdotal material that indicates more women our age -- without a biological imperative or financial incentive to marry -- are the ones saying, "I want my space."
Here's the data:
- 1 in 3 boomers -- more than 25 million people -- are unmarried, and our numbers have increased steadily over the last three decades.
- As of 2009, 58 percent of single boomers were divorced, 32 percent had never married and 10 percent were widows.
- The divorce rate, which has stabilized in the general population, continues to rise among boomers. In 1980, 41 percent of women in our generation had been divorced at least once; as of 2009, 60 percent had been. (The rate for boomer men has also risen, but only from 52 to 57 percent.)
- Among single boomers, 56 percent are dating or open to the idea, yet only 11 percent say they want to remarry.
- Of Americans 50 and over, at least 2.75 million men and women are now co-habitating, up from 1.2 million in 2000.
Interestingly, there is emerging anecdotal evidence of a new category of boomer couples: those living apart together, or LATs. There is no reliable data on people in non-residential arrangements, but these committed couples are living contentedly in separate dwellings, not necessarily because work has forced them apart, but because they like it that way.
I know a bunch of LATs and LAT wannabes, myself among them. What could be better than loving and being loved by someone, but not having to debate upholstery samples or how you got that ding in the car. That's what I want -- and for the guy to have grandchildren. I'd like to be an accidental grandmother, though I wonder how one explains the LAT lifestyle to a 5-year-old.
(MORE: How I Became (and How You Can Be) a Fairy Godmother)
LAT women love the combination of romantic attachment and lots of personal space. My college roommate, while being courted by the man who would be her second husband, joked that she wanted two houses, maybe with a tunnel. A co-worker of mine had a partner who liked his quiet life in Westchester, while she was a busy-all-the-time New York City woman, so they stayed apart and connected with each other a few times a week. Another friend, widowed young, later married someone in Baltimore who hates his job, but in this economy can't just move to New York and assume there will be work here. So they see each other on weekends. She loves it; him, less so.
Some women who are divorced or widowed are simply disinclined to marry again. By contrast, my widower friends tend to remarry relatively quickly. While generalizations are dangerous, more women than men seem to successfully maintain a separate society of friends. On the other hand, men largely consider their wives to be their closest friends, so it's no wonder they're eager to replace them.
Is the Single Life Dangerous?
It's a common belief that being single is bad for your health. According to the signature study on the subject, conducted at Bowling Green University, unmarried people have "greater economic, health and social vulnerabilities compared to married boomers." The study concludes that the growing number of aging singles will impose "significant new challenges for institutional supports," including home-care aides, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. Men, the study notes, are especially vulnerable without "access to reliable social supports, typically the spouse."
(MORE: The Perils of Aging Alone)
This research, however, underestimates the value of female friendships, argues DePaulo, author of "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After." Friendship, she believes, gives single women the social ties that gerontologists agree are crucial to healthy aging.
In and out of academia, single living is getting a lot of attention these days. There have been cover stories about single, middle-aged women in both The Atlantic and The Washington Post Sunday magazine, as well as a new book by New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg called "Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone." The lead subject of the Post story, Wendy Braitman, says she never expected to be 58 and single but is "more or less OK" with it and even maintains a blog called First Person Singular: Notes From an Unmarried Life. Unmarried women, she believes, have been "envied, feared, vilified and pitied throughout history, and most of the time, misunderstood."
Whatever path we commit to in our younger days, we always reserve the right to change our minds, as one friend of mine recently did -- with panache. After decades of companionship and two years of marriage, she and her husband finally decided to end their LAT relationship and move in together. For her, it was a radical step, commemorated by an "I'm Moving In With My Husband Tag Sale," in which she attempted to sell half of the antiques and other possessions that filled the loft she had lived in for 40 years before relocating to her husband's high-rise apartment.
(MORE: How to Deal with a New Sex Partner After a 'Dry Spell')
"It worked for a while," she says of her LAT marriage. "Then it stopped working. I definitely feel like I'm moving on to something positive and happy. Plus, there's a doorman and a gym."
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Romance, as we age, blossoms from ever deeper wells of the soul. True, probably, but it helps to have a charming, waterfront city to help get things rolling. <a href="http://www.aarp.org/home-family/livable-communities/info-06-2012/great-cities-for-older-singles.3.html" target="_hplink">Boston</a> manages to meld scrappy and intellectual -- a relatively small city that is home to some of the most prestigious universities in the world, bolstered by culture, parks and a fine quality of life. Greater Boston (population 4.5 million) includes the city of Boston (617,594) and more than 100 cities and towns. The smaller places range from 17th-century villages (Plymouth) to some of the oldest suburbs in America (Brookline and Braintree). Many area towns were built in the 18th century and most feature central squares surrounded by small businesses and residential neighborhoods. In 2011, Boston was ranked the fifth most literate big city in the United States, and a high share of area residents have a college degree. The city's parks are big and exceptionally good, with several designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The Arnold Arboretum at Harvard is one of the finest in the world. The Massachusetts Audubon Society's Boston Nature Center has opened on the grounds of the old Boston State Hospital. The metro area also offers nearly 120 miles of Atlantic coastline and lots of dedicated bike paths. Locals bond over sports: The Red Sox and New England Patriots have become regular contenders; the Celtics are synonymous with Boston hoops tradition; and the Bruins have the second-most Stanley Cup victories by a U.S. team in NHL history. Massachusetts is a great place to be retired from a government job or the military because most payments from public pensions are exempt from state taxes. And metro Boston is a major center of medical talent, with a very high concentration of physicians, hospital beds per capita and teaching hospitals. Rates of smoking and obesity are low, so the metro area has low mortality from heart disease and low rates of hypertension. Because traffic congestion is a serious problem in the city, many locals use the region's excellent subway system or walk or bicycle to work. Boston's coastal location means it does get severe storms, including nor'easters, blizzards and the occasional hurricane. That's when it's time to curl up on the couch with that special someone and watch the weather roll in.
<a href="http://www.aarp.org/home-family/livable-communities/info-06-2012/great-cities-for-older-singles.11.html" target="_hplink">Milwaukee</a> is like Philadelphia with some of the rough edges sanded down -- a manageably sized city populated by fun-loving locals, with a dollop of Midwestern wholesomeness stirred in for good measure. But Milwaukee isn't lacking excitement: The city has matured nicely since the days when breweries and manufacturing ruled, with smart riverfront development and a slate of things to do to quench most tastes. Milwaukee is a collection of villages. A historic district packed with trendy shops and cafes on Brady Street is just a few miles south of Harambee, an up-and-coming African American neighborhood whose name means "let's all pull together" in Swahili. Once the sun sets, older singles tend to steer away from the youthful exuberance of downtown for more, um, demographically friendly venues like Kiko's on West Bluemound Road, where live bands fuel the dancing on weekends, or one of the dozens of corner bars dotting Milwaukee's neighborhoods. This metro area of 1.75 million covers four counties in southeastern Wisconsin. The center of Milwaukee (population 594,833) hugs Lake Michigan about 80 miles north of Chicago. As the local economy has been forced to relinquish its reliance on manufacturing, most job growth now occurs in services and health care. Thanks to its excellent public schools and unusually large number of higher educational institutions, Milwaukee enjoys a well-educated labor force. The largest schools are the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (enrollment 30,000) and Marquette University (11,000). The city also has a large and well-funded public library system. The extensive local and regional transit systems offer connections to Chicago and Minneapolis. The many miles of Lake Michigan coastline provide oodles of recreation opportunities. Milwaukee's French and German heritage helps explain its tradition of supporting classical music. A Beethoven Society was founded even before the city was incorporated, and the local symphony maintains an active schedule. The city has a large theater district and multiple museums, including the striking wing-shaped Milwaukee Art Museum (designed by Santiago Calatrava) and Harley-Davidson Museum. The concentration of physicians and specialists is high, but so are rates of obesity and diabetes. But the people here are comfortable with themselves, and that makes it easy to find good conversation and dance partners.
In the 1960s and '70s,<a href="http://www.aarp.org/home-family/livable-communities/info-06-2012/great-cities-for-older-singles.2.html" target="_hplink"> San Francisco</a> achieved mythical status as the land of free love. Fast-forward 40 years: Social mores have changed, but San Francisco still reigns as a bastion of active dating across all demographics. It helps, of course, that the city has a fairly compact center loaded with date-friendly diversions -- indoors and out -- to suit most tastes. Maybe it is the mix of nature's wonders and cosmopolitan allure that sparks romance: Whether you are strolling the wharfs, huffing up one of the city's vertiginous hills, sampling sushi in the Noe Valley neighborhood or cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco seems to shine -- at least when it's not blanketed in fog. San Francisco is among the top 10 metro areas for population density, with more than 800,000 people packed into a central city the size of Disney World. The city has a diverse and tolerant population, with a strong gay and lesbian community and more than 100 distinct neighborhoods. S.F. is well known for its eccentricities, but it is also a high-functioning city. In 2010, Foreign Policy magazine ranked San Francisco as the world's 12th most important city. San Francisco also ranked ninth on the 2011 list of America's Most Literate Cities. The job market is holding up better than it is in most cities, and foreclosures are much less of a problem than they are elsewhere in California. Although traffic congestion and commute times are bad in San Francisco, driving is often optional. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) anchors one of the most efficient regional transit systems in the United States, and the system continues to grow. Both San Francisco and its huge woodsy park, the Presidio, have been honored as bicycle-friendly locales. San Francisco's universities are yet one more place for older singles to meet up. San Francisco State University has an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The University of California, San Francisco, is exclusively devoted to health and medical education, which contributes to a high number of physicians per capita. The region is also an extremely healthy place to live. The metro area has a high proportion of population age 65 and older, and the age-adjusted health status of that population is among the best in the United States.
Perhaps as much as any city in the United States, <a href="http://www.aarp.org/home-family/livable-communities/info-06-2012/great-cities-for-older-singles.10.html" target="_hplink">Pittsburgh</a> has leapfrogged into the 21st century, remaking itself from a dying, dirty steel town to a lively, clean beacon of the new economy, awash in cutting-edge culture, dining and entertainment. But enough vestiges of the old days remain, including iconic bridges and signature buildings, to make Pittsburgh feel pleasantly gritty. The only downside for older singles is that the city proper is getting younger -- the percentage of the population age 65 and older dropped to 13.8 percent in the 2010 census. But at 16.8 percent, Allegheny County remains among the top in the country for percentage of seniors over age 65. In the new 'Burgh, you can enjoy a fine meal of locally sourced ingredients at Douglass Dick's Bona Terra restaurant, drink award-winning craft beer at the Church Brew Works, and take in the ballet at the Benedum Center or an art-house movie at the Harris Theater. Or you could have a Primanti Brothers sandwich topped with fries before hitting Jack's Bar on the Southside for $1.25 beer specials -- and possible off-the-ice sightings of Penguins hockey players. Pittsburgh's economy has successfully diversified to include biotechnology, health care and software. The new Pittsburgh is smarter and cleaner. Indeed, you can once again catch fish in the Monongahela River. Unemployment is much lower than the national average; likewise, the foreclosure rate is among the lowest in the country. Pennsylvania is also a prime place to live on a pension: All money withdrawn from pensions is exempt from state taxes. Several large research universities have helped drive Pittsburgh forward. Chief among these are Carnegie Mellon University (enrollment 12,000) and Duquesne University ( 10,300), which -- along with the University of Pittsburgh's main campus ( 28,766 ) -- have spun off businesses from their research contracts. Pittsburgh also claims a rich tradition of philanthropy: Andrew Carnegie lived (and gave) here, and today the Heinz family maintains a $1.7 billion foundation focused exclusively on southwest Pennsylvania. Allegheny County's libraries function as crucial community centers. Those libraries, represented by the Allegheny County Library Association, recently joined with AARP and the Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield PALS (People Able to Lend Support) program to organize walking groups for adults age 50-plus. The region has above-average outdoor recreation -- mountains, rivers and trails abound -- and below-average rates of cancer, heart disease and other chronic health problems. Despite all the change, residents still abide by a sense of community drawn from their immigrant roots, and that makes for an inviting place to be regardless of your relationship status.
Two hundred years ago, <a href="http://www.aarp.org/home-family/livable-communities/info-06-2012/great-cities-for-older-singles.6.html" target="_hplink">St. Louis</a> was the last place Lewis and Clark could buy gunpowder before paddling into the Wild West. Today, it has grown into the 15th largest metropolitan area in the country. But while it's matured, the city still has a wild edge reminiscent of the frontier days. St. Louis contains more than six dozen neighborhoods, each with its own character. Some are more conducive to mingling than others. The Central West End is home to galleries and antiques shops, sidewalk cafes and bars. As the website Explore St. Louis says, the neighborhood is "a little European, a little New York and totally St. Louis." It also boasts the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, which has the world's largest collection of mosaic art. The St. Louis metro area (population 2.8 million) includes eight counties in Missouri and eight in Illinois. Lots of nice suburbs lie to the north and west in St. Charles County: three of these, St. Peters (55,000), O'Fallon (75,000) and St. Charles (64,000), made the list of best 100 small cities in a 2008 study by Money magazine. St. Louis is one of America's "most livable communities," according to Partners for Livable Communities, with lots of walkable places. The American Planning Association recently honored the Delmar Loop in University City as one of the 10 Great Streets in America, and the warehouse buildings downtown have recently been remade into glitzy residential lofts. There are also village-style developments out in the suburbs, such as WingHaven in O'Fallon, New Town at St. Charles and Park Plaza in Edwardsville, Ill. The metro has more than 30 degree-granting institutions, including several community college campuses and seven schools with enrollments of more than 10,000. Washington University and Webster University are private colleges; the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville are public; and Saint Louis University is a Jesuit college. Nature lovers bask in the city's 105 parks. The jewel of the system is Forest Park, the 1,293-acre site of the 1904 World's Fair and now home to the city's sublime zoo and first-class museums of art, history and science. Forest Park also harbors the Municipal Opera, golf courses, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and facilities for bicycling, boating, fishing, handball, ice skating and more. Powell Hall, home of the renowned St. Louis Symphony, is a few blocks away from Forest Park. The neoclassical Central Library building anchors a large library system. And Union Station, built in 1892, reopened in 1985 as a hotel, shopping and entertainment complex, and is now a major attraction. Downsides include bad air pollution and humid summers. But a mug of local beer in an air-conditioned bar or sidewalk cafe can ease both of those ills.