Mental and Spiritual Provision
Facing alone an old age unprovided for is a situation which tries even the staunchest spirit. Many single women from the lower economic groups are confronted with it as they grow older and its effects upon them are seen in diminished physical and mental health. The single woman for whom provision has been made may grow older in serenity and contentment, satisfied that her years of service are ended and that she can enjoy a much-anticipated period of lei-sure and rest. But the single woman for whom no pro-vision has been made views her situation with increasing unease. Studies of older single women on relief speak of "emotional disturbances" and "mental quirks" which sometimes constitute a barrier to further employment and which make continued assistance necessary. And yet the development of these traits in individuals whose position in the social order has been exposed and uncertain for so many years seems almost inevitable. For most of these single women on relief have been workers in the lowest paid occupations of domestic service and unskilled labor. The challenges of the single life which the women of high intelligence and good training have accepted with zest and enjoyment and which they have met with success have proven too much for the women who were equipped neither by nature nor training for this exceptional role. The latter were not able to in-crease their earning power or even to maintain it by their individual efforts and they were not protected by organization or legislation.
But the serenity and poise with which some single women view the period of their last years indicate that a secure economic basis has been of value to them in facing other aspects of old age. For the mental acceptance of the value and limitations of the later years is obviously easier for the person who is untroubled by pressing material cares. The acceptance of a life of diminished activity was mentioned as difficult by a number of women who had been accustomed to a very active career. One woman who had been engaged in a business enterprise of her own remarked, "Immediately after I retired I kept looking for something active to do and was restless when I did not find it. My sister suggested that I go away with her for the first six months of vacation I had ever known. We travelled in a leisurely way, we rested, we moyed on again. The desultory pace which at first irritated me began to be pleasing as I became more rested. Then I began to sense the pleasures of loafing. If I had known them early in life I am afraid I should, have been a professional bum. For I had never tasted leisure before. I realized that, once tasted, it becomes a necessity particularly for the person whose energies are no longer at their highest peak. No, I am no longer looking for something to keep me busy and I hope I shall never have to be busy again, I have earned these years of leisure. I mean to enjoy them in doing only the things I like doing and not much of them!"
Some single women mentioned the difficulty of accepting the fact that they were "no longer useful" in their later years. Apparently the sense of family and social obligation which had provided their motive power and sustained them during their active years remained to plague and tease them when they were no longer busy. The American ideal of a busy, strenuous life seemed to have penetrated so deeply into their thinking that they were unable to accept a quieter phase of living as normal. One woman who lived quietly and happily in her small city apartment had apparently thought through the matter to her own satisfaction. "Of course I am useful. A person is always useful when he is living to the full that phase of life in which he finds himself. Leisure and a life of greater quiet are normal and natural in old age just as activity and strenuous living are natural for youth. But an old person who is trying to live the life of youth is seldom useful or happy. He makes everybody uncomfortable, including himself. When he is old he should live the life that is natural to that age if he wants to be happy. I was a nurse before my retirement and I was directly useful to sick people. But I am just as useful now even though I do not render direct service in so many ways because I live my life according to the strength and ability which I now have in the sphere which is the natural one for me now."
The single woman appeared to prize her independence in old age as she had throughout life. A wish to keep control over the conditions of her own life seemed to intensify with age when it was more threatened through ill health or diminished economic resources. Most of the single women with whom we talked had made arrangements to continue their independent mode of living and there was no tolerance in their thinking for any kind of institutional care. One woman remarked: "I will neyer go to an institution,
I will not go to a hospital. I will die here in my own little house, I will die at home. If staying here should increase my physical suffering then all right, I can take it. But no physical suffering could compare with the mental suffering which I would endure if I were taken away to an institution. That in itself would kill me."
Other single women seemed to concur in this view. It seems obvious that the single woman who has maintained and prized her independence throughout life must suffer more keenly than others when she loses it and that institutional care should not be considered as a suitable means of meeting her needs when she is old. Medical care in her own home becomes more feasible with the present organization of the nursing services as a means of extending independence to that last period of life when it is still sought and prized. One woman suggested for older single women of small means the development of villages such as the "beguinage" provided in Europe of the Middle Ages. Small houses with gardens built about a central area or parkway could, in this era, provide centralized services of heating, cooking, physical, mental and spiritual care at small cost and little inconvenience to the residents while allowing them to retain a high measure of personal independence. Apartment house living for aged persons provides some of these features but many older persons prize the privilege of being able to step out into a bit of garden, however small, of being able to keep pets, and of sitting out on the verandah to see the world go by at close range.
Much is said of the loneliness of old age but few of the women with whom we talked complained of it. It may be that the single woman who has lived apart from family life has built up a protective pattern of interests and leisure-time occupation which stand her in good stead when she is old. She is not "surrounded by her children" as was the matriarch of an earlier era. But neither is the married woman in contemporary America "surrounded" by her family of one or two children when she is old. For in this country of much movement and high mobility the chances are that family members have found it difficult to maintain residence in the same area, to say nothing of the same home. One old lady ventured the view that the loneliness of age had been greatly exaggerated in the mind of youth.
"When you are older," she remarked, "you have less energy and less curiosity, so you are not so eager to be with others."
Other women spoke of occupying their time with reading, listening to the radio, caring for pets, and a limited amount of gardening.
The spiritual aspect of life had assumed a large measure of importance for many older women. The acceptance of old age as a normal phase of living had meant the acceptance of all of its aspects—the quiet and leisure and the peace, but the suffering and deprivation, too, with the end in view. The worth and significance of human life and suffering, even in its diminished phases, had taken on for some of these women a significance and beauty which made them not only willing to accept it but able to regard it as precious. For it seems clear that the single woman who has lived her life apart from the stream of family living may, at the end, be able to see more clearly than she has before that her life has unfolded to a plan and pattern as has every other living thing, and that, together with all of them, she is merged in that general stream of living which itself seems to move in a way that has meaning and purpose.