One of the most dramatic differences between our lives today and the lives of our grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great grandparents is that on the average, we live a lot longer than they did. As I discovered when I was researching How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century,
“A twenty-year-old in 2000 was more likely to have a living grandmother than a twenty-year-old in 1900 was to have a living mother.”
With all those additional years, we can revisit, over and over again, that question that once seemed relevant only to young adults, “What do I want to do with my life?”
In some ways, the potential answers to that question are even greater later in life than they were before. Most of us have to work to support ourselves. If we are fortunate, our work will be meaningful – and single people value meaningful work more than married people do. If not, then meaningful pursuits are relegated to the non-working hours. In retirement, though, we can, within the constraints of our means and our health, pursue the interests and adventures we’ve long fantasized about.
The female perspective on the possibilities that open up to us in later life was described by 62 women who wrote brief personal stories for “You’re Doing What? Older Women’s Tales of Achievement & Adventure,” edited by Marjorie Penn Lasky. They shared their creative endeavors, their travels, the lifelong dreams they finally got to pursue, and the adventures they never dreamed they would get to experience. Some were making a difference with their activism. Several of the women described the ways in which their own lives differed from their mother’s or grandmothers’.
Today’s older women have been at the vanguard of redefining family. Their stories are in “You’re Doing What?”, too. For example, Kay Trimberger (who has written some wonderful guest posts for us here at “Single at Heart”) described her experiences as a single woman who had adopted a mixed-raced infant when she was 40:
“My mother in her mid-seventies exalted in being a grandparent to five biological grandchildren and to my adopted one. She could not have imagined that in my seventies I would have no grandchildren but that my family would include a wide array of members of my son’s birth families in Louisiana, relatives on both his black father’s and white mother’s side, including other mixed-race half-siblings of my own.”
I’ve long been interested in the question of what people are doing with their lives, but from the perspective of living single. I asked many single people of all ages, “Have you ever done anything really big in your life that you probably would not have done if you were married or in a serious romantic relationship?” Many of their answers sounded a lot like the stories told by the older women in the anthology. As Jacqueline Hackel said in “You’re Doing What?” when recounting what she wanted to do after her first marriage ended:
“I wanted to be single. I did not want to remarry. I wanted to return to the university and obtain my doctorate. I wanted to travel to exotic places. I wanted adventures.”
I had assumed that people today are not just living longer, but that they are also experiencing better health than the generations before them. According to a 2018 report from the World Health Organization, though, that is mostly untrue:
“There is…little evidence to suggest that older people today are experiencing their later years in better health than their parents. While rates of severe disability have declined in high-income countries over the past 30 years, there has been no significant change in mild to moderate disability over the same period.”
Some of the contributors to “You’re Doing What?” experienced more than their share of disabilities. They, too, had stories to tell of their achievements and adventures.
Of course, in later life – or, really, at any time of life – fate can deal you such cruel blows that your options really do become severely limited. I guess the lesson is to live fully and gratefully while you can.