Retirement, for one

Glossy ads for retirement communities feature happy couples, but the reality is that increasing numbers of people are divorced, widowed, or have never been married

Thermometers have already passed the 100-degree mark on a sunny Wednesday afternoon as two dozen residents of Sun City Grand retirement community assemble on a shaded patio for a weekly gathering of the singles club.

Laughter mingles with conversation and easy camaraderie as members, dressed in shorts and sandals, relax outside the Bistro Restaurant. With birds singing and hibiscus blooming nearby, it is a setting conducive to sociability and friendship.

"You're just single here, you're not alone," explains Joan Stukenborg, the club's president. "You're only alone if you choose to be."

Advertising images portray the transition to retirement as a Noah's Ark-style venture, with happy couples - a hint of silver in their hair - sailing into their "golden" years two by two. But for a growing number of new and future retirees, this stage of life involves a solo journey. They are retiring alone. Some are divorced, others widowed. Still others have never married.

For them, questions about where to live and how to create a fulfilling life without the structure of work or the companionship of a spouse can loom large. So can financial issues, particularly for women. Yet singles retiring alone remain largely invisible.

"Most retirement education and retirement planning, both financial and nonfinancial issues, is focused on couples," says Helen Dennis, a specialist in aging and retirement in Los Angeles. "The reality is that more and more people are retiring as single people."

While three-quarters of men age 65 and over are married and live with a spouse, only 45 percent of women do. More than a quarter of women in their late 50s and early 60s are either divorced or widowed, according to census figures.

Here at Sun City Grand, a planned community developed by the Del Webb Corp., the singles club boasts 170 members. Although women still outnumber men by a ratio of 4 to 1, more men have been joining in recent months.

"They love house parties and free food," jokes Al Olson, a widower who moved here last year, offering one explanation for the increase in male members.

For men retiring alone, challenges are often social rather than economic. Mr. Olson, a retired supermarket manager from upstate New York, was widowed in 1999 after 45 years of a marriage he describes as "very happy." He moved first to Los Angeles to live near his son, but found it hard to meet people.

Men, he observes, tend to be loners. "Women are more daring. They'll join things. I know from experience, you have to get out. Everybody is needing friends, needing companionship."

Companionship vs. 'dating'

Although five couples who met in the group have paired off, Olson emphasizes that the prime objective is not dating, but simply friendship and companionship. He tells prospective residents, "If you're looking for a place where you're going to find the love of your life, this probably isn't it."

Another widower attending the social hour, Ben Meyer, says, "The longer I'm single, the less I'm interested in getting married. The M word? No."

Ms. Stukenborg, who has been divorced for 20 years, moved to Sun City Grand late in 1999, five days after retiring as human resources manager at General Motors headquarters in Detroit.

Loneliness can be a problem, she says, "if you don't get out." Calling herself "chief party person," she adds, "You've got to get involved. Nobody is going to come knocking at your door."

The increase in singles approaching retirement shows up elsewhere as well. When the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement in Asheville, N.C., held its 10th annual retirement exploration weekend in May, 15 percent of the 156 attendees were single. This represents an increase over previous years, according to Ronald Manheimer, executive director.

As the first baby boomers turn 55 this year, gerontologists expect the ranks of older singles to continue to grow, making this an issue for women in particular.

"My perception, and it's a very strong one, is that singleness will be one of the biggest quality-of-life issues for women entering retirement in the millennium," says Christopher Hayes, director of the National Center for Women and Retirement Research in Southampton, N.Y.

Drawing on five years of research, Dr. Hayes finds that women entering retirement alone have specific challenges that are just beginning to be recognized.

One is economic. Women typically have not earned as much or saved as much as men. Their pensions are also smaller. Last year, 44 percent of men between the ages of 65 and 74 received pension income, compared with 26 percent of women in the same age group, according to AARP.

Never-married women who have had many years to prepare may be better off, says Nancy Dailey, author of "When Baby Boom Women Retire." But she cautions that some divorced women might find themselves in a bind for retirement income.

Ms. Dailey gives workshops on baby boom retirement called "Wake up, Sleeping Beauty - and you too, Prince Charming." The Prince Charming myth "is still alive out there," she says. "He's never coming."

She lists five events that could derail financial security as an individual moves into retirement: divorce, downsizing (having to leave the workforce too early), the death of a spouse, disability, and caregiving. Men are "just as vulnerable in many ways," she says.

Baby boomers, Dailey explains, will be the first generation to join their parents in retirement. Her "best guesstimate" is that baby boom women, through their entire old age, will probably care for two to five elderly people.

For single, never-married women, Hayes cautions, that will mean "providing financial and physical, hands-on care to an older parent without the benefit of sharing such responsibilities with a spouse."

Although men also become involved in caregiving, many tend to do tasks such as mowing the lawn and handling the finances, whereas women typically do hands-on care. "For the man, there's no need to leave the work world," Dailey says. "The woman is much more likely to do that."

Despite the increase in singles, marketers continue to target retirement housing, products, and services to couples. A few ads picture a single woman, but almost never a lone man.

Such exclusionary marketing, Ms. Dennis says, sends negative messages to singles, making them think, "I don't fit. I really am a third wheel."

Hayes adds, "We are going to be living in a singles society, with many single older women. Companies are going to have to wake up to the reality that these women exist and that they have their own unique needs."

Catering to senior singles

As baby boomers retire, Dennis expects to see "a whole different marketplace" catering to services for singles. The housing industry, she says, must develop living arrangements that accommodate the needs of single people. Shared housing cuts living costs and offers companionship.

When Dennis conducted a retirement workshop in Pasadena, Calif., it drew divorced and widowed women. Their primary concern focused on the desire to feel connected when they no longer work. They talked about sharing housing and collaborating on activities.

"It was so clear, the need for relationships, and how important it was for that to happen when a person leaves the workplace," Dennis says. For both men and women, "being connected is key. For some it might be having meals together, or traveling, or intellectual pursuits, or work and entrepreneurial opportunities."

Rebecca Adams, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, has studied women's friendships in retirement.

Before retirement, she found, single women who had always supported themselves tended to have little time for friendships. Married women typically had a wide network of friends. They had often invested considerable time in their husband's career and participated in church and community organizations.

In retirement, married women tended to narrow their friendships and focus on a few close friends, Ms. Adams says. "When single women retire, they do just the opposite, joining organizations and expanding their friendships."

For Barbara Lawson, the move from Sherman, Texas, to Sun City Grand in April was tinged with bittersweet elements. Two years ago, her husband died. Last year, her job as a regional manager at AT&T in Dallas was cut.

She found herself wondering, "Now, what do I do with my life?" In the small town of Sherman, she could not even find women golfing partners. So she moved.

"My husband and I were going to do this together," Ms. Lawson says. "It's still the right thing for me to do. I'm starting over." She is also establishing a fledgling business as a personal trainer.

Most people do not move far in retirement. Among baby boomers, only one-fifth expect to relocate to a new area when they retire. But even for those who stay put, issues of companionship, activity, and financial security remain the same.

For everyone, a sense of adventure helps, too. Margaret Corbellini, a former high school principal in New York, moved to Arizona four years ago. Divorced for 37 years, she had planned to share her home in Sun City Grand with a friend from California. But just before they were to move, her friend died.

"The trip from New York to here with a very large shedding dog in the back was scary," Ms. Corbellini recalls. "What was I doing?" Yet once she settled in, "it didn't take very long to feel at home. I'm perfectly happy alone here." Every day she meets friends at the gym at 4:45 a.m.

Still, she occasionally finds that singles are not always welcome. "Some people have made it very clear to me that they're only interested in couples," she says.

Another club member, Janet Rollins, moved to Arizona three years ago. "My friends thought I was crazy," she recalls. "They said, 'All alone? Way out there?' I said, 'What's the worst that can happen? I'll sell the house and probably make money."

Lawson echoes the comments of other singles when she says, "I'm learning to live alone, but not be lonely. I'm trying to find the joy in being myself as a person."

Ms. Rollins adds firmly, "If you want to have a life, you have to make it."

What women should know before retirement

Christopher Hayes, director of the National Center for Women and Retirement Research in Southampton, N.Y., lists four major issues that single women need to consider as they approach retirement:

Employment. Women need to develop secondary employment skills. If they're going to be in the labor force for longer periods of time, they should find skills and career tracks that provide supplemental income in their later years. That is going to be a critical necessity for single baby boomers and divorced women.

Caregiving. Single women must consider ways to handle their parents' long-term care needs without a spouse to help. "I recommend they sit down with a parent and work out what their parents' expectations are of them as they grow older," Hayes says.

Housing. Start to think of alternative living arrangements, such as shared housing. Renting a house with a number of female friends who are also single or divorced will help in terms of quality of life and finances.

Advocacy. Women must start strongly telling financial institutions and other companies that they have unique needs and issues they want to see reflected in products, services, and advertisements. "The more these women galvanize, the more they're going to have their needs heard."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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