Flying Solo in the Golden Years

Article as seen on, By Ellen Hoffman

Retiring as a single person presents special challenges. Here are some tips for planning ahead

Whether it’s intentional or not, 19% of men and 40% of women over 65 live alone. This includes people who may be divorced, widowed, or just temporarily without a partner.

Because of the inevitable changes that arise with aging, including some physical limitations and, for most people, a reduction in income, living alone in retirement poses special issues that should be addressed up front. Among the top issues are getting and paying for necessary care if you become ill or disabled, choosing someone to make key health and financial decisions for you in these cases, and structuring a rewarding lifestyle that guards against loneliness and isolation.

The majority of older single women may face especially difficult choices because on average they live longer, but have less retirement savings and other resources to rely on than men. The Web site of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement has extensive information on women’s retirement issues.

Individual Planning

But for solo retirees, regardless of age and sex, as well as for paired retirees, the basic challenge is the same: to plan and save ahead of time, choose a retirement date and lifestyle, and know you’ll be able to afford it.

John LeBlanc, a financial planner in Boston, says that many single people “tend to procrastinate [in planning]. They don’t have the partner to push them along.” This is a mistake because single retirees don’t have the advantage of two Social Security checks, 401(k)s, or investment accounts to pay their bills.” LeBlanc says that in his experience, the cost of one person living alone is more than half the cost of two people who live together.

Joan Gutknecht, a planner in St. Petersburg, Fla., also finds that many single people lack “a person with whom they can discuss confidently and confidentially” their financial issues. If you feel that way or need technical help, you can work with a planner to develop your retirement strategy. Otherwise you can try to do it yourself, using tips such as those in one of my previous columns (see, 5/10/01, “Retirement Planning for Do-It-Yourselfers”).

Health-Care Concerns

In case of illness, even short-term or non-serious, single retirees may not have a family member or friend who’s available to help out, so a key part of any plan should be preparing for two aspects of potential health-care needs: who will provide the care, and how to pay for it. “Think through what your support system would be should you face incapacity,” says Susan Elser, a financial planner in Indianapolis. “If you needed the typical hip replacement, who would take care of your home? Who would care for your pets? Will it be your children? Your friends?”

Often, the answer will be one that costs money—visits by a home health aide or an in-home companion, or moving to an assisted living situation or a nursing home. In 2006, the average cost of a private room and bath in assisted living was more than $35,000 per year; the average nursing home cost for a private room was $206 per day, or $183 per day for a semiprivate room; and the rate for a home health aide was $19 an hour, or $17 an hour for a homemaker or companion. These costs vary widely depending on where you live. The MetLife Mature Market Institute, a research organization, lists the costs by state for assisted living and for nursing homes and home health care.

Jack Bejna, 67, of Seminole, Fla., retired as a sales engineer for GTE 10 years ago. He has long-term care insurance because “being single, one of the fears we have is you’ll outlive everyone else, so you’ll be stuck when you’re incapacitated and your support group has died.” If he gets into this situation, he figures that the insurance “at least will get me into some place where they could take care of me.”

Premiums and POAs

The average annual premium for policies covering care in either the home or a nursing home was nearly $2,000 in 2005, according to the latest federal government figures. The cost rises with your age. Alfred McIntosh, a financial planner in Los Angeles, suggests buying a policy by the time you’re in your late 50s, before premiums escalate too much and before you may develop preexisting conditions that disqualify you or raise your premiums. But whether this insurance is the best move for you depends on several factors, including health status and medical history, age, and availability of other financial resources. To help evaluate insurance and other options for paying long-term care costs, see the Web site for the federal Administration on Aging.

A related issue for solo retirees is appointing someone to make health-care or financial decisions if they’re incapacitated. Tom Medsger, 67, retired earlier this year from his job as art director for a Los Angeles publishing company. But 10 years ago he gave his nephew, a policeman, power of attorney (POA) to make health and financial decisions for him and serve as executor of his will. The AARP Web site has information on financial POAs and the American Bar Assn. addresses POAs on its Web site.

Relishing Retirement

Once you’ve put your financial, health-care, and legal houses in order, it’s time to focus on the fun side of retirement—enjoying your newfound time. Medsger, the former art director, is excited about his upcoming trip to Mexico to serve as a volunteer English teacher. Bejna, a self-described “consummate rail fan” who treasures his forays around the country to museums and other railroad landmarks, says that in retirement he does “pretty much what I want.”

And therein lies the attraction of solo retirement. Financial planner Elser points out that there’s “a lot more flexibility. Finances are always at the top of the list that a couple argues about. As a single, you have full control over the spending as well as the flexibility” to choose the lifestyle that suits you, with no compromises required.

In addition to writing Your Retirement for, Hoffman is the author of The Retirement Catch-Up Guide and Bankroll Your Future Retirement with Help from Uncle Sam. You can contact her through her Web site,