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Post: Next Avenue: Aging alone? You might need to learn to let go of some old traditions.

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.

I saw the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” during this last New Year’s holiday season. In the musical, Tevye heartily sang “Tradition!” to express the personal angst that threatened his comfort and place in the world. The more overwhelmed he felt, the more robustly he sang, expressing a fervent need to hold on for dear life to his family and religious traditions.

It was interesting to sit in the theater that night as a solo ager, an older adult who has no children or whose children are not available or dependable. For people like me, the everyday challenges of senior living differ from those of the larger population.

The notion of Tevye’s “Tradition!” was subtle and profound. When most people feel unsettled and anxious, returning order and predictability into their personal world comes in part from enacting familiar historical and familial customs, strengthening existing bonds with each other. Those of us who move and live in more solitary ways have fewer of these traditions to anchor us.

When I realized this truth, a wave of sadness washed over me. As Tevye sang out, “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word…tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” I thought, “No, no, no. I no longer have those familiar places and practices.”

What I do have are options. Because I live as a child-free widower, my ways of moving through the world allow for multiple choices rather than historical expectations. Primally felt and worthy of note, living without the usual precedents of “the way it has always been done” was an unexpected and unwelcome loss.

Also see: Seniors want to stay at home, but they may need help with daily living. Should they hire a concierge?

The presence of loss creates opportunity

The presence of loss creates psychological, familial and social spaces for our inner lives. For better or worse, opportunities for newness, particularly manifest in the loss of holiday and social customs, become evident.

While cultural traditions are not guaranteed paths to stability (since unpleasant realities can and do intervene), such anchors typically help us to weather storms of change in predictable and familiar ways.

So, what are solo agers to do?

Social science research reports that many of us freeze in our decision-making capacity when we encounter an overwhelming, unexpected number of options and choices available in otherwise historically traditional circumstances.

My epiphany dawned as I was alone in a new city, sitting in a dark theater, during a holiday typically spent with my deceased wife’s extended family. Old friends had worried about me. “Come with us. You are just like one of the family,” they said. I knew these loving invitations did not fit, as much as I deeply appreciated their care.

Immediately, I thought of the customs that wouldn’t work for me. My thoughts revolved around such questions as, “I like southern cornbread dressing, not oyster stuffing. How in the world would I participate in a gift exchange with people I don’t know well?” I was at an intersection: Settle or explore. In this instance, I chose to go on an adventure.

Exploring and choosing valid and reliable options in the absence of tradition is not easy. Further research on decision-making says that increasing the number of options and choices may lead to adverse circumstances, including decreasing motivation to choose and lowered satisfaction with the selected option once enacted.

Fortunately, there are road maps to help a solo ager categorize and proceed with reasonable expectations.

Related: Am I lonesome? ‘I’m fine. I’m fine.’ How single men can prepare to age alone.

Be open to new experiences, but think carefully first
  1. Clarify the decision for exercising a new option. Ask yourself, “Why is it important that I choose something new? What will satisfy me?”

  2. Then, explore alternatives. I knew before my “Fiddler on the Roof” theater trip that I needed busyness, multiple activities, restaurant choices, and easy airport access if I was going to travel alone. A trip to a remote island in the South Pacific was not a good option. I factored in COVID regulations, safety decisions, and ensured that I could comply with the CDC pandemic mitigation recommendations. I know this about myself: I will play by the rules as long as I know what they are.

  3. Collect sufficient data and information to make a thoughtful decision about the options under consideration. As a solo ager, the best choices are those without unpleasant surprises.

  4. Select the best option that fits time and place. Trust the decision and know that it will be filled with mixed emotions, memories and energies. Enact the chosen plan with as much confidence as you can muster.

  5. Whatever the option, expect to make new friends. Take a path based on the belief that the world is a friendly place. Go on the journey knowing that you are never too old to learn from the experience of others, most of whom will be open to sharing their world.

  6. Take pictures. Keep a journal. Regardless of the option chosen, realize that freshness will blur over time and you will need data to evaluate and remember the experience.

For solo agers without traditional connections, realizing and enacting options are the viable alternative for moving through the world with effectiveness. When history and tradition are absent, option and choice are vital.

Read next: I went searching for the perfect place to live in retirement — and got lost along the way

While the idea of option does not completely satisfy the loneliness that arises in the lack of tradition, it does allow an individual to feel more in charge of their experience.

Jackson Rainer is a board-certified clinical psychologist practicing with CHRIS 180 Counseling Center DeKalb in Atlanta. He may be contacted at jacksonprainer@gmail.com. 

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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