TORONTO – At age 80, Ada Garrison finds herself at a new beginning.
A host of new friends, activities and challenges abound since a health scare prompted her to move into a retirement home in downtown Toronto.
Six months ago she had been living alone in a two-bedroom apartment. Her 54-year-old daughter and grandson were in the unit below but she saw them rarely, as was the case with her two sons, one of whom lives in New York.
“I felt isolated,” Garrison admits of that time. “My kids were real busy and I could hear them; that was lovely, but the social time with them was skimpy.”
Meanwhile, her own circle of friends was dwindling.
“About half of them have died and that’s another reason that I felt blue. I was trying to make some younger friends, but people are swamped with work and there’s not a lot of leisure time.”
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The sociable grandmother moved to a retirement home where she now finds herself “cheek by jowl” with other seniors in an atmosphere she likens to living in a college dormitory. She takes classes and goes on group outings.
Her new daily imperative: make new friends and live life to the fullest.
Garrison is part of a growing group of single senior Canadian women who are redefining what it means to age alone. Their ranks are swelling, according to the latest tranche of data from the 2016 census, released Wednesday by Statistics Canada.
The number of elderly Canadians is soaring – a 19.4 per cent increase among those 85 and older between 2011 and 2016. Since people are living longer and women tend to outlive men, females have long had to cope with standing alone as they grew old.
Among Canadians aged 85 and older, there were nearly two women for every man in 2016, Statistics Canada found last year. For centenarians, whose ranks grew at a staggering rate of 41.3 per cent, the ratio was was five to one.
Some are widowed or divorced; others never married. Many have children, but they live far away amid housing and employment pressures. Some liken becoming a single senior to reinventing themselves entirely.
“There is a lot of reinvention because you’ve got another 30 to 35 years of life and why do what you’ve done before?” says 68-year-old Adina Lebo, who never married and lives alone in Toronto but finds support from a tight circle of female friends.
“Some of my friends started little businesses, like dog walking, or they took their mum’s cookie recipe and started making cookies and selling them at the local bakery and local fairs. Other people have gone into business with Airbnb and turned their home into a revenue-producing (business).”
Leslie Brodbeck, 71, says she found “a new confidence” after her husband died suddenly of brain cancer in 2008.
“I went to the bank, for instance … and negotiated a bridge loan all by myself. I had never done anything like that in my life,” says Brodbeck, who lives in London, Ont. “I want to be a person that’s vibrant and involved, not someone who sits at home and knits.”
And while it’s long been true that the people who approach 100 are mostly women, men are starting to close the gender gap, says Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of The Vanier Institute of the Family.
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In 2001, there were 2.3 men for every woman in the 85-and-over group, Statistics Canada said Wednesday. In 2016, that ratio was down to 1.87.
Spinks credits better illness detection, medical treatment and preventative care with pushing male life expectancy to increase at a slightly higher rate than that of women.
But older women still live longer, and many are alone.
Spinks says it’s not surprising many seniors describe feeling a newfound freedom, since it often follows a lifetime of sequential caregiving.
“First you look after your kids, then you look after your parents, then you look after your spouse, then you look after your friends,” she says.
“You’re taking care of others from the time you’re in your 20s – maybe late 20s, early 30s – right through to your 60s, and then all of a sudden, you get to focus on you. And for a lot of women that’s very liberating.”
It’s something Bev Farrell sees everyday in her work at Third Age Outreach, a geriatric service out of St. Joseph’s Health Care in London, Ont.
As a “therapeutic recreation specialist,” she helps older adults find meaningful activities such as exercise, crafts or card games.
She recalls helping a widow who was foundering after a decade spent caring for her ailing husband.
“She had to give herself permission to have fun, because she felt a little guilty at first.”
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Lebo, chair of the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, says one of the biggest concerns of members is the fear they will outlive their savings.
Health care, housing, transit and social supports are all big concerns, but she has struggled to find steady employment since being losing her job five years ago. She finds support from older single women who share her struggles and can offer a helping hand when needed.
“We’re basically looking after ourselves and helping each other,” says Lebo, who also looks after her 96-year-old mother.
“I have friends who’ve said, ‘Adina, we’ll be calling you to assist us on medical things that require a second person and please call us,’ so that’s an unwritten bond.”
Meanwhile, older seniors like her mother are at greater risk of spending more time alone, says Lebo, especially when illness is involved and it becomes impossible to leave the house or entertain visitors.
Brodbeck’s advice, meanwhile, is the same as that she gives her children: plan ahead while you can and celebrate every stage of life.
“Look to the future, don’t dwell on the past, but live every day. Because you never know what’s around the corner and that’s what my husband’s death taught me.”