I'm 75 and living alone; my friends think I should move

My sister and my best friend seem to think I'm living in a fantasy world.

By Cary Tennis

Published January 16, 2009 11:10AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a woman in my middle 70s who lives alone in a household I maintain myself, with a minimum amount of help. I was married for 30 years and have been living happily on my own now for almost 15 years. I work part time in a small home-based business that generates sufficient additional income to pay for meals out, other social events, charitable donations and a few other "extras."

Although I have no children, and no family living anywhere near, I have a great many friends, ranging in age from mid-30s to several well over 80. My neighborhood is close-knit and secure, and I still drive.

My health is good, although I have some mobility problems and a few chronic problems that require daily medication. But I feel great and have a supportive doctor who is pleased with how I handle things.

My problem is two women, both of whom are very close to me. One is my older sister, the other my oldest friend in this area, who is 10 years younger than I am. Both of them are very critical of how I live. Both chastise me for not exercising, criticize my diet, and think I should move out of my house.

My sister used to work in the health field. She doesn't agree with my doctor's diagnosis and advice. She had to move recently out of her house to live with her daughter. She keeps urging me to learn by her example, but my house is adapted to my needs (hers wasn't), and we have very different health histories.

Both my sister and my friend often criticize me in front of other people, which is very unpleasant. My sister does this by telling other family members about her advice to me. My friend's criticism is usually couched in witty comments that are thinly veiled insults. The last time she did this, she excused herself by saying she and I are such long and close friends that she can get away with making fun of me.

Many of my friends confide in me and come to me for advice, but I usually hold my tongue when I see someone making a wrong decision. I think there's a big difference between giving an opinion, couched in sensitive language designed not to hurt someone's feelings, and offering unsolicited advice, especially repeatedly when the subject has already been discussed many times.

I also feel it's cruel to criticize someone in front of anyone else, even if it appears to be in jest. I've noticed that no one else chimes in or even laughs when this happens, so I think they find it embarrassing and sympathize with me.

I'm not one to hold a grudge, and I love both my sister and my friend dearly. But I'm at a loss as to how to handle this situation. I find myself becoming defensive whenever the subjects of diet, exercise or housing choices come up, which they often do.

Can you suggest ways I might react, both to the criticism and the jokes at my expense? I've tried ignoring the witty barbs, but that doesn't diminish their frequency.

As for the advice, when I say that there's not much point in discussing something we've talked about many times before, the response is that they are motivated by love and concern for my welfare. How does one answer that?

Cranky Old Person,

Dear Cranky Old Person,

How does one answer that? One answers that by demonstrating that one has a plan.

You go to your friends, and you say: I know you are concerned about me, so here is my plan for how I will continue to live on my own if I lose my mobility, lose my ability to drive, lose my ability to run my home-based business, become confused and start making mistakes on paying the bills, lose my ability to buy groceries and cook for myself, fall down and break my hip and have to go in a nursing facility to rehab my hip. Here is my concrete plan for how I plan to protect myself from financial fraud should I have occasional memory lapses and agree to pay for things I do not want. Here is my security plan should crime become a problem in the neighborhood, or should I forget where I am when I am out walking. Here is how I will pay for needed care. Here are my resources. Here is the person who has agreed to take care of me if I cannot take care of myself.

If you find you cannot make this plan, or that certain questions cannot be answered, then it should become apparent to you that you really do have a problem. And frankly, I think you do have a problem. You have no children and no family anywhere near. That is a huge problem. Friends are great. But friends cannot be depended upon. In fact, part of your friend's concern may be quite reasonably selfish: She may see that if you do not have a plan, if something happens, an unfair burden will be placed upon her.

Let me speak from experience now. Let me be cruelly honest, because if my brothers and sister and I had been cruelly honest from the beginning about the natural process of aging and had been cruelly honest with each other about the need for planning and resources and about the grinding, heartbreaking impact a parent's slow loss of faculties has on everyone, maybe we wouldn't be in the mess we're in now. So to be cruelly honest I would say this: Things are only going to get worse.

There are so many questions to consider that you may find it overwhelming. If you wish to stay in your neighborhood but find you cannot live alone, will it be possible for someone to come stay with you? And if you cannot stay in your house, is there a place nearby, an assisted living facility where you could live so that your many friends could still visit you? How much would such a place cost, and do you have the resources to pay for it? If there are arrangements to be made, who will make them? Will your niece come and make the arrangements? Will your friend? Will your sister? Who will take you to the doctor? What if you need to visit the doctor three or more times a week? Who is willing and able to perform such tasks week in and week out?

Have you had a Frank Conversation About the Obvious™ with your best friend? Have you asked her if she would perform the duties of a healthcare surrogate if something dreadful should happen?

Your life is beautiful right now. Hats off to you. You've done amazingly well. Your doctor is obviously pleased. You are ahead of the curve. But none of us is immune to the effects of aging.

Your friends see the future.

Maybe you will prove them wrong.

But if you do the hard and uncomfortable work of thinking all these issues through, at least you will have a plan.

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Cary Tennis

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