Why you need to learn to live alone

That’s a bold assertion.

Look around you. How many widows and widowers do you see?  There are a lot, and there will be more. Granted, we’re living longer now that we used to, but that just means you’re older when you’re first hit with the challenge of living alone.

My uncle died recently. He was 90, and he and my aunt had been married for 60 years and 6 months. Think about that: my aunt has not lived on her own for 60 years, and when she married, she went from flatting with other students to married life. She has never lived on her own.

My father is 85. He and my mother were married for 53 years and now he is living on his own after she died. He went from student flat to married life and he too has never lived on his own before.

Surely, the worst time to learn to live on your own is when you’re freshly bereaved. I can’t imagine what it must be like for either my aunt or my father to find themselves living in an empty house after all those years with someone. The loss is hard enough, let alone realising that all of a sudden, you realise you don’t know how to look after yourself.

Dad has, in his 80s, had to learn the basic skills of looking after himself. I find this remarkable and sad. And a bit scary. He’s a fully grown adult, obviously, but in terms of knowing how to look after himself, he’s a neophyte. He’s not as bad as a vast number of his generation (I’m thinking of the men who typically remarry 6 months after losing a spouse because they need a housekeeper) because he does have some core housekeeping skills that he has had to develop fairly recently. Before my mother died, she was going blind from macular degeneration, so Dad had to take on many of the household chores, albeit under her direction. So he knows how, and how often, to vacuum; he does the grocery shopping; he does laundry; and he can cook and even bake a little. He’s pushing himself to learn new dishes, and that’s a good thing as it improves his diet, although he is no slouch in that area and regularly has 5 veg with his evening meal.

But the point is really that now that he is on his own he is suddenly finding that the has to be responsible for all these things. It’s no longer optional. His wife isn’t there to tell him when to put the potatoes on and how long to cook the chicken for (she micromanaged his cooking even in her blindness, so he never really learned, he just followed her directions). Now he has no-one to give him directions. Previously, cooking dinner one or two nights a week was something he’d get a massive pat on the back for, and I don’t think it ever really occurred to him that it wasn’t particularly praise-worthy, that it was just an essential skill if he wanted to eat.

Likewise with laundry and cleaning the house. He’d do it once in a while and feel proud of himself and perhaps even tease my mother about dirt he found hidden in some nook or cranny, but it never really seemed to occur to him that cleaning the house was something that needed doing every week and that he maybe should learn to do it too. It’s not about it being someone’s job: it’s about knowing how to look after yourself.

The fact of it is, you don’t need to live alone to master these core life skills. But you do need to master then, and to prepare yourself for the day when it might happen. And even if it doesn’t, can you really call yourself an adult if you’re incompetent when it comes to executing the basic activities needed to keep yourself alive and functioning?

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