Senior Power: Alone

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Friday November 11, 2011 - 09:24:00 AM

Living alone, in fiction, nonfiction and even children’s books, is generally regarded as unfortunate, something to be avoided. Being alone is assumed unpleasant, probably the result of misfortune. Aloneness is often associated with consolation, solitude, even secrecy 

Neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo contends that chronic loneliness is an unrecognized syndrome. In his 2008 book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, he relates it to depression and offers reasons for it.  

The first part of this column, then, is mostly about solitude vis-a-vis older and middle-aged people. 


Only-children (singletons)] often have a hard time and are likely to feel lonely, isolated and overwhelmed by their parents’ problems and to be accused of being spoiled. Their loneliness may carry over into adulthood.  

When we met as University of Chicago graduate students in 1954, I was impressed by a fellow International House resident, a middle-aged, never-married, career Army officer. Henry and his twin sister had been orphaned, but he considered that she too had done well, because she had married and was at home with children. Despite the distance, his vacations were spent with them. They were home for him, so he was not alone. (I had not yet recognized the possible sexism in his equating feminine success with marriage and children. 

Florida Pier was born in 1884 in Orange Park, Florida and educated at home. She grew up in Pittsburgh, and moved to New York at fifteen to become an actor. In 1910 she married John Scott-Maxwell and moved to her husband's native Scotland, where she worked for woman suffrage and as a playwright. They divorced in 1929 and she moved to London. An actor, writer of plays and short stories, and homemaker in her youth, at age fifty she began training as an analytical psychologist, studying with Swiss psychologist-psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). She was in practice as an analytical psychologist in both England and Scotland, and she spent decades working as a therapist before she retired 

The Measure of My Days is Florida Pier Scott-Maxwell’s most well known book, usually the only one in public libraries’ collections. It is the private notebook of a remarkable woman of eighty-two encountering the challenge of old age. It was published in 1968. This collection of sensitive and perceptive journal entries documents experiences and emotions while alone in her eighties, and includes a time of ill health. 

Here’s a paragraph entry from The Measure of My Days that focuses on the positive side of living alone. Scott-Maxwell, a grandmother, is wondering if living alone makes her more alive. She believes it has made her more “natural.” She speaks of her “duty” not to be a problem for those who care for her. A few sentences later she questions, “I wonder if we need to be quite so dutiful.” She continues by speaking of a special feeling of life’s intensity and energy that she is experiencing in her eighties 

“I wonder if living alone makes one more alive. No precious energy goes in disagreement or compromise. No need to augment others, there is just yourself, just truth—a morsel—and you. You went through those long years when it was pain to be alone, now you have come out on the good side of that severe discipline Alone you have your own way all day long, and you become very natural. Perhaps this naturalness extends into heights and depths, going further than we know; as we cannot voice it we must just treasure it as the life that enriches our days. 

Later, she recalls a time when she had left her marriage. She begins to be aware of what every old woman knows.  

“After a time of trouble I found a likeable flat which was to be my home. I had had a long need of one, so it was also my dead shelter. My daughter and I moved in one evening with two suitcases two beds, three pots of bulbs, a kettle and tea things. … That was many years ago, but only last year I passed a supermarket and saw coming out a slut [slovenly] of a woman. She was fat, unwashed, unkempt in hair and dress, with a large three-cornered tear in her overall [smock]. She looked large-hearted and vital, and as our eyes met something passed between us, we liked each other. ..We know who we are even though we lack the precise name for it.” 

“I never understood myself less. The humid summer makes me listless, age empties me, and this nervous exhaustion proves me truly spent. I feel profound lassitude, yet I am not ill. If someone comes and I talked I call up energy that I do not possess, and I may pay for it with an aching head lasting two or three days. I must talk less, I must become laconic. A smile, a nod, how unlikely, yet excessive talk must be based on vanity, an assumption that you are the fountainhead of interest. Age insists that I be dull as a further disability. No one else will mind, perhaps not even notice. Others might prefer me silent. I will try.” 

Her experiences have led her to believe that “Age insists that I be dull as a further disability.” What do you think of her conclusion that she will try to be silent? 

Following hospitalization, surgery and a “nursing home,” she writes: 

“I had one fear. What if something went wrong, and I became an invalid? What if I became a burden, ceased to be a person and became a problem a patient, someone who could not die? That was my one fear, but my changes were reasonably good, so all was simple and settled and out of my hands. Being ill in a nursing home became my next task, a somber dance in which I knew some of the steps. I must conform. I must be correct. I must be meek, obedient and grateful, on no account must I be surprising. If I deviated by the breadth of a toothbrush, I would be wrong.” 

What do you think of Scott-Maxwell’s apparent willingness to be “meek, obedient and grateful”? Would she celebrate November as National Caregivers Month? 


Go to Google. Type: Alameda County Area Agency on Aging 

The Area Agency on Aging (AAA) is the local arm of the national aging network. Federal, state, local governments, not-for-profit as well as for profit private agencies work together to advance the social and economic health and well being of elders (60 and over) in Alameda County. The AAA is based in the Alameda County Social Services Agency’s Department of Adult & Aging Services at 6955 Foothill Boulevard, Suite 300, Oakland, CA 94605. It provides free Information & Assistance by telephone (1-800-510-2020 or 510-577-3530).  

The Advisory Commission on Aging (ACA), made up of representatives concerned about the needs and interests of elders in Alameda County, and appointed by the Board of Supervisors, the Conference of Mayors, and the ACA, works with AAA staff to develop, plan, and administer programs designed to assist elders and their caregivers in the county. I served on the ACA, while AAA staffer Louis Labat was its coordinator. In the August 17, 2010 Senior Power column, I reported on his retirement experiences 

Every four years, the AAA prepares an Area Plan that directs the provision of services provided by community-based organizations for seniors.  

Periodically, it conducts a Needs Assessment includes surveys that seniors (60+) fill out, consumer focus meetings with seniors (over 55), and key informant meetings with providers and other groups that work with seniors. The information from all of these activities is assembled and compiled in a publication that provides a detailed look at the demographics, issues and concerns of seniors in our community. The information is shared and is used to inform the development of planning for and providing services for seniors throughout the county. A wide response to the survey is necessary. You can assist by completing it online

The Alameda County Area Agency on Aging also conducts focus groups attended by persons involved in providing services to the aging. I sat in on a Focus group last week led by Lisa Ho with Belinda LLaguno, who will be updating our Area Plan demographic data. Participants were asked three main questions: 

1. What services or systems are currently working well for older adults in Alameda County? 

2. What are the most critical unmet needs for older adults to help them live independently at home? 

3. What other possible new services of partnerships can be fostered to address the unmet needs of older adults living in Alameda County? 


MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Be sure to confirm. Readers are welcome to share by email news of future events that may interest boomers, elders and seniors (define these any way you like!) Daytime, free, and Bay Area events preferred.  

Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. 12 Noon. Beef Bowl Anime Club meeting for adults. Albany Library, 1247 Marin Av. 510-526-3720 x 16. 

Monday, Nov. 14, 11:30 A.M. & 12 Noon. J-Sei Center, 110 Carleton St., Berkeley. Lecture “Do You Have the Right Insurance?” Speaker: Darrell Doi-CLTC Financial Advisor. To place a reservation for the lecture and/or lunch, call 510-883-1106. 

Monday, Nov. 14. 12:30 P.M. – 1:30P.M. Brown Bag Lunch Speaker’s Forum: Bob Lewis, Birds of the Bay Trail cosponsored by Albany YMCA and Albany library at 1257 Marin Av. 510-526-3720 x 16. 

Monday, Nov. 14. 7 P.M. The Greek Isles-- History and Travel. Laura Bushman will talk about and present a slide show depicting the white washed villages overlooking the Aegean Sea. She will also address, briefly, the current economic condition in Greece.  

Kensington Library, 61 Arlington Avenue. Free. 510-524-3043. 

Tuesday, Nov. 15 is Annual National Memory Screening Day. http:///

Tuesday, Nov. 15. 1 P.M. Falls Prevention Discussion Group. Senior Injury Prevention Project. Participants will receive a Falls Prevention Manual and other useful, easy to read information. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Av., Alameda. 510-747-7506 

Tuesday, Nov. 15. 7 P.M. Author Showcase. Annette Fuentes, investigative reporter and author of Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse, is an op ed contributor to USA Today. El Cerrito Library, 6510 Stockton Avenue. 510-526-7512. 

Wednesday, Nov. 16. 11 A.M. Outreach Specialist Colleen Fawley (510-981-6160) will visit J-Sei Senior Center, 1710 Carleton Way, Berkeley, to answer questions and take requests for books and magazines available from the Berkeley Public Library in Japanese and English. 510-883-1106. 

Wednesday, Nov. 16. 12:15-1 P.M. The Nocturne. Faculty Recital: Louise Bidwell, Piano. Nocturnes by J. Field, Chopin, C. Schumann, M. Szymanowska, and Fanny  

Mendelssohn. Free. UC,B Hertz Concert Hall, free. 510-642-4864. 

Wednesday, Nov. 16. 7 – 8 P.M. Adult Evening Book Group. Facilitated discussion . Albany Library, 1247 Marin Av., 510-526-3720.  

Thursday, Nov 17. 10 A.M. – 12 Noon. Free dental consultation with Dr. Alfred Chongwill. By appointment only. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Av., Alameda. 510-747-7506 

Thursday, Nov. 17. 12:30 P.M. Birthday Celebration. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Av., Alameda. 510-747-7506 

Thursday, Nov. 17. 1:30 P.M. Volunteer Instructor William Sturm presents “Musical Grab-Bag” medley of pieces by composers discussed in the Music Appreciation Class for 2011. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Av., Alameda. 510-747-7506 

Saturday, Nov. 19. 10 A.M. – 4 P.M. Friends of the Albany Library Book Sale, 1247 Marin Av. Includes sales of collectibles and holiday items as well as books. Please do not bring donations the week prior to the sale. 510-526-3720 x 16. Also Sunday, Nov. 20 11 A.M. – 4 P.M. 

Saturday, Nov. 19. 11 A.M. Landlord/Tenant Counseling. Central Berkeley Public Library, 2090 Kittredge. 510-981-6241. 

Sunday, Nov. 20. 1:30P.M. Book Into Film. An Education. From a chapter of Lynn Barber’s 2009 memoir of the same title. Central Berkeley Public Library. 2090 Kittredge. Free, but registration is required. 510-6148. 

Tuesday, Nov. 22. 3 P.M. Tea and Cookies. Central Berkeley Public Library, 2090 Kittredge. 510-981-6236.  

Wednesday, Nov. 23. 1:30-2:30 P.M. Great Books Discussion Group: John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Albany Library, 1247 Marin Av. 510-526-3720.  

Wednesday, Nov. 23. 1:30 P.M. Gray Panthers’ monthly meeting. At the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst. Free. 510-981-5190, 548-9696. 

Monday, Nov. 28. 2 – 3:30 P.M. “Vigee-LeBrun:Woman Artist in an Age of Revolution” presentation by Brigit Urmson. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Av., Alameda. 510-747-7506. 

Monday, Nov. 28. 7 P.M. Book Club. Silas Marner by George Eliot . Kensington Library, 61 Arlington Ave. Free event. 510-524-3043. Each meeting starts with a poem selected and read by a member with a brief discussion following the reading. New members are always welcome. 

Wednesday, Nov. 30. 12:15-1 P.M. Gamelan Music of Java and Bali. Performed by classes directed by Midiyanto and I Dewa Putu Berata, with Ben Brinner and Lisa Gold. UC,B Hertz Concert Hall. Free. 510-642-4864. 




Monday, Dec. 5. 6:30 P.M. "Castoffs" Knitting Group. Kensington Library, 

61 Arlington Ave. Free. 510-524-3043. An evening of knitting, show and tell and yarn exchange. All levels welcome. Some help will be provided.  

Wednesday, Dec. 7. 6-8 P.M. Lawyer in the Library. Albany Llibrary, 1247 Marin Av. Free. 510-526-3720.  

Monday, Dec. 19. 7 P.M. Book Club. Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Tey is known as the mystery writer for those who don’t like mysteries! Kensington Library, 61 Arlington Ave. Free event. 510-524-3043. Each meeting starts with a poem selected and read by a member with a brief discussion following the reading. New members are always welcome. 

Wednesday, Dec. 28. Great Books Discussion Group. Albany Library, 1247 Marin Av. Holiday lunch and selection discussin. 510-526-3720 x 16.