This is what happiness looks like.
But don’t shed a tear for the unmarried ladies of America’s retirement communities quite yet. While there are many social factors that might explain why more elderly women are single than elderly men — life expectancy, for one — there is growing evidence that older women are staying single simply because they like it. Which is kind of awesome.
One wonders how much credit The Golden Girls deserves for this trend. While, yes, it was just a sitcom, I can’t think of another work of creative fiction that did more to portray aging women as independent bad-asses.
Who cares about growing old with some guy you settled for in your 30s, if you could be sitting out on the lanai with Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia?
Can you think of an equivalent representation of aging men? A movie or TV program that showed older men living and thriving together on their own? (Even the man-focused Golden Girls spin-off Empty Nest had a widower living with his daughters.)
The federal study titled “Older Americans 2016: Key Indicators of Well-Being” notes that, in the 65 to 74-year-old age group, almost 75% of American men are married, while only 58% of women are.
The numbers diverge even more when you get older — in the 75 to 84-year-old age group, the male marriage rate stays the same, but the female marriage rate drops to 42%.
Why is that? Is it simply because Dorothy Zbornak was a kick-butt feminist icon?
That probably helped, but there are a lot of factors.
There’s the previously stated life expectancy gap — women live longer than men — coupled with the fact that, statistically, women tend to marry older men, so there’s more of a chance for women to be widowed than men.
But older men also get remarried more often than women. In an article for the New York Times, Deborah Carr from the Institute for Health at Rutgers University noted that, with 2.55 women for every man among unmarried people over age 65, and 3.27 unmarried women for every unmarried man over 85, older men have far more options when it comes to finding a single woman than an older woman has finding an unavailable bachelor.
So, is lack of options for women a factor? Perhaps.
But there are also some major social changes over the past few decades (Golden Girls included), which speak to why older women are staying single.
There’s the increase of women in the workforce, which has produced a generation of women who are not only comfortable, but expect to take care of themselves, even in their aging years.
There’s the drastic increase in “gray divorce” — i.e. older couples getting married — a trend in part inspired by partners realizing that they won’t want (or don’t have to) spend their final “golden” years together.
And there’s the idea that, while older men go into their retirement years hoping to have someone take care of them, older women often go into their golden years looking forward to getting to STOP taking care of people, such as their children or their spouse.
In a 2004 study called “Gender, Preloss Marital Dependence, and Older Adults’ Adjustment to Widowhood,” researchers found that women who were the most-emotionally dependent on their male spouses tended to have low self-esteem. However, those same women experienced the highest growth levels in self-esteem after they lost their spouses (due to death or divorce).
Basically, those women flourished after leaving long-term dependent relationships and realizing that they were capable of taking care of themselves on their own. Which is beautiful in a way.
Are there hardships for being an older single woman? Sure there are.
Remember all of Sophia’s “get rich quick” schemes on The Golden Girls? They were probably, in part, inspired by the fact that older women who have been divorced or widowed experience more economic hardships than older married women.
Also, more older single women move into assisted care facilities than older men because they don’t have someone taking care of them on a day-to-day basis. But, again, most of those older men probably have their slightly younger wives acting as their caregivers.
It represents two very different approaches to aging — lockdown someone younger than you to take care of you while you age OR venture off on your own terms?
We don’t have a great culture supporting men adopting the marital caregiver role in the United States, so it’s probably easier and more socially acceptable for older women to embrace their singlehood and live out their retirement years on their own.
Granted, in an ideal situation, “on their own” would mean sharing a house with three other wise-cracking ladies, dating a new gray-haired fox every week, and writing the occasional card that says “Thank you for being a friend,” but to each their own.
Just keep in mind the next time you see a “lonely” grandma, she might just be loving the fact that she’s independent and on her own for the first time in a very long time.