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(Image: Getty / Archi Banal)
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SocietyOctober 20, 2022

Man alone: Elderly and isolated in Aotearoa

(Image: Getty / Archi Banal)
(Image: Getty / Archi Banal)

It’s often observed that women of all ages fare better than men at building support groups of friends and family and maintaining social contact. But what happens to a man whose gregarious wife dies and leaves him to a long, lonely widowhood?

When my father turns 80 next month, he won’t throw a big party as my mother would have insisted if she were still alive. For the past decade, Dad has lived on his own. For a few years before that, his wife – my mother – lived with him, but he was forced to nurse her as she declined quickly, struck by the cruel disease, Alzheimer’s.

It does feel like one of those uncomfortable things we don’t talk about much as a society: what happens to an elderly man when his wife or partner goes into a rest home hospital or passes on before him? Statistically, women outlive their husbands and partners (84 is the average life expectancy for women, 80 for men). There are 30,000 more women aged 80-plus than men of the same age (or 86,000 men to 116,400 women) in that age cohort, according to Statistics New Zealand. So we are more likely to notice older women out and about, often accompanied by a friend or a daughter, or in packs of female friends.

Before Mum became unwell 16 years ago, the room in which Dad now watches TV buzzed with energy and life. Mum and Dad hosted potluck dinners for their friends or for Mum’s siblings and their families. Everyone brought a plate of food to share. Mum’s laughter bounced off the walls and Dad was always by her side, her king on the chess board of life.

My mother Mary, before she became ill, with my father Doug. (Photo: Supplied)

In the past 18 months, since Dad has been on his own, he has only caught up with the occasional friend or family members for dinner. He would like to go on a holiday but has no one to go with, and has no interest in joining a club or taking a trip with a group of strangers.

I see people his age out at cafes, walking, cycling and socialising, and I hope and imagine I will be like them when I’m in my 80s. They’re usually either groups of women, or couples.

It seems rare to see men in a group together, enjoying their retirement. As Dad notches up yet another birthday without Mum by his side, it has struck me how if I see single men around his age out of the house, they’re often alone. I ask Dad if he’s lonely, and he tells me he’s happiest on his own. “I’ve got everything I need,’’ he reassures me.

Heterosexual men of my dad’s generation often seemed to reserve their social energy for their work – where they commanded power, identity and respect – leaving the weekend arrangements and extended family connections to their wives.

Doug and Mary Catherall on their wedding day in the 1960s. (Photo: Supplied)

In his book Of Boys and Men, the Downing Street staffer Richard Reeves writes about male loneliness. He argues that men have comparatively smaller circles of real friends compared with women of all ages.

Otago University geriatrician, associate professor Hamish Jamieson, would agree. “Often women are the more social ones in a couple and the loss of [a female partner] can end up making the elderly male feel  lonely and socially isolated.’’

Jamieson says networks become important as men age. If an elderly man doesn’t have a female partner, moving into a retirement village or connecting with others through a church or hobby group can be a good thing.

A man who has outlived his wife might still have health issues that make it difficult for him to socialise, he says. Or perhaps the friends he does have die or become physically unwell. “Or someone like your father might have spent all those years caring for your mother and as a result he’s been cut off from his normal networks,” he tells me.

The male reluctance to socialise is not simply a matter of social conditioning or habit. Studies have shown that as men get older, their ability to show and read emotions declines as part of their ageing brain function, according to professor Ted Ruffman, a psychologist at Otago University.

Ruffnan says: “Men in general have more difficulty opening up, even though close intimate friendships are beneficial to everyone. Men do worse after a marital break-up than women. So you’ve got the effects of culture and genes and the effects of ageing with older men. These things make it more difficult for men, and older men, to gain from close personal relationships even though we all need these things for good mental health.’’

As with many things, Jamieson points out that socialising is a case of “use it or lose it’’. An elderly person can’t be forced to get out and mingle, but they should be encouraged to do so. Social isolation can cause health and mental health issues: depression and heart disease. A few years ago, a study showed that 19% of elderly adults reported they were lonely. He thinks that statistic would be higher now, due to Covid.

The men’s shed

Eddie Galway is like my father – he’s apprehensive about mixing with new people or even with old friends. About 18 months ago, Eddie’s wife, Audrey, also passed away from Alzheimer’s. The TV hums in the background at the Julia Wallace Retirement Village in Palmerston North, where 91-year-old Eddie now lives alone in a two-bedroom townhouse.

Three years ago, the Galways moved here from their large Palmerston North home with a rambling garden, where they loved to host friends and Audrey welcomed garden club visitors too. Until she became ill, the couple loved playing golf together – Eddie still polishes the trophies they won, on display in the living room.

Eddie Galway, 91, is adjusting to life after the loss of his wife, Audrey. (Photo courtesy of Ryman Healthcare)

Before Audrey died, Eddie would wheel her around the retirement village in a wheelchair.

He’s now lived on his own for two years, but one of the highlights of his week is when he joins nine other village residents at what is known as “the men’s shed’’. In the former gardener’s shed, they are led by another resident, Allan Pretious, in making pest traps which are dropped into the Ruahine Ranges. They’ve made more than 500 for Environment Networks Manawatū, which is reintroducing Kiwi into the ranges.

Eddie says his two adult daughters are relieved he’s getting out and mingling. “Some of the other men go to the happy hour (at the village), but I’ve never liked liquor. Maybe I should go along anyway,’’ he reflects.

Life has changed without Audrey. Like my father, Eddie cooks for himself every night. “I’m going into town tomorrow to buy some cloves. Audrey used to make a delicious cabbage curry which I’ve tried to make too but it’s not as good as hers so I thought I’d try to add cloves.’’

He tells me he’s happy on his own. “I’m a bit of a loner. I don’t mind people but I do have to make an effort to get involved in things.’’ In the evenings, he works on his financial accounts, watches TV and does the crossword. “I’m quite busy. I’ve got the place to clean up and look after too.’’

“I don’t really mix with others apart from going to the men’s shed. We have lunch and a bit of a laugh.’’

Eddie notices other single and widowed men floating around the village on their own, who seem to be lonely. While the village organises plenty of activities, these are voluntary. “The thing is,” says Eddie, “as you get older, the harder it is to make changes in your life. You do have to make an effort.’’ Eddie tells me he plans to invite someone new at the village to join the group.

The members of “the men’s shed” make pest traps to protect native birdlife in the Ruahine ranges. (Photo: Ryman Healthcare)

My sisters and I hope Dad will move to the next chapter, but we don’t want to push him until he’s ready. He has his name down for a unit at a retirement village in Napier, the place where Mum passed away last April. Dad has been reluctant to move from our family home because he enjoys the garden and his huge, bountiful avocado tree that continues to produce the creamiest avocados I’ve ever tasted.

Ultimately, it’s his choice, but like my sisters and Eddie’s daughters, I have turned from worrying exclusively about my children to worrying about my ageing father too. Life has moved full circle: back to when my kids were little and even they when stamped their feet and said “No!’’ I’d keep encouraging them to reach out, to make new friends, to say hello.

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