I sat in a friend’s backyard beside his new pool, sipping iced tea his wife had just set down for us. As a favor, Brian, a financial planner, had generously agreed to meet with me to take a look at my situation.
“You’re a 37-year-old childless woman married to an older man. Chances are, later in life you’re going to be alone,” he told me. “If you want to take care of yourself, you’re going to need money.”
His words made my head momentarily swim, but I nodded. He was right ― I needed a new plan.
For most of my adult life, I made a decent living teaching Pilates, and in my late 20s, I opened a tiny studio that I still own and operate myself ― a one-woman show with minimal overhead and lots of flexibility. Up until that moment, I felt I was good with money: no credit card debt, no student loans, a small but existent emergency fund. My husband had his own retirement sorted. A career firefighter, he would receive a pension, but that would disappear when he died.
As a couple, my husband and I have been fortunate enough to land in a place where we can pay our bills and still be left with some discretionary income, which is, I realize, a situation that many Americans and others around the world may never have.
Growing up white, at the lower end of the middle class with a stable two-parent household, had no doubt stacked the deck in my favor and provided me with privileges that paved the way for this backyard meeting and made the luxury of thinking about retirement and long term savings even possible.
Marrying young had also lent me a certain outlier quality among my childhood friends. As they were preparing to go off to college, I was buying my first house. As they traipsed around the globe on a gap year, I was already working. This meant I had arrived in my early 30s with several major life milestones already under my belt, and just enough discretionary income to try to make up for what sometimes felt like a thwarted youth.
It’s not surprising, then, that as a millennial ingrained with an “experience over stuff” mentality, all my extraneous income from the previous decade had gone to travel, filling my passport with stamps from foreign countries. I wore my outlier status as a badge of honor and, bent on solidifying this idealized independent status, I booked solo trips all over the world and leaned hard into that other millennial mainstay, minimalism. Aside from travel, sometimes all I wanted to do was sell all my stuff and move into a van.
My husband, an avid surfer and fellow traveler, would often leave home for months at a time, so I spent extended periods of time living alone. I told myself that, given my experience with traveling and living on my own, I would be fine to navigate old age by myself.
And yet here I sat, 37 years old, being handed an alarming dose of reality. A kind yet blunt financial planner was informing me that I was actually woefully unprepared to take care of myself in the years to come.
“I realized I was surrounded by women who were all staring down a similar barrel: the potential of being alone at an older age, fending for ourselves, and with maybe not enough money.”
My friend advised me to set aside enough cash to be able to hire help as I aged. Not a bad plan in itself, but looking at my income, my current lack of retirement savings and my penchant for foreign travel, this was going to be no easy feat. I also wasn’t too happy about the possibility of spending my final days among strangers. Still, his advice was not lost on me, and I set up my first investment accounts, thereby taking my adulting to the next level.
Hoping for some consolation and solidarity, I began polling my friends about their plans for aging. A couple of us are married, but most of my friends are not. A few of us have become parents, but most of us don’t have kids. But, honestly, these two mainstays of conventional aid for aging provide little protection against the peril women face later in life.
Women statistically outlive their male companions, and divorce takes one out of every two opposite-sex marriages. That percentage appears to be even higher in lesbian marriages, so regardless of sexual orientation, all women are at risk of finding themselves without a partner when they’re older.
Having children is not a sure bet either, as many parents still find themselves living out the end of their lives alone or placed in a home. To be a “childless woman,” whether by choice or by circumstance, can leave one feeling even more vulnerable. And in today’s U.S. economy, women are still only averaging 80 cents on the dollar of their male counterparts.
Looking around me, I realized I was surrounded by women who were all staring down a similar barrel: the potential of being alone at an older age, fending for ourselves, and with maybe not enough money.
But hadn’t we all just spent the last 20 years traveling with friends, living with friends, relying on friends? Did that have to change as we aged?
As a child, I had grown up watching “The Golden Girls” with my grandmother. In the 1980s classic sitcom, comedy ensues as four previously married 50-something women move in together in South Florida. They support each other through everything that comes at them ― from health scares to dating dilemmas ― and they make the kind of chosen family that many of us dream of having and want to create.
So, I reasoned, why couldn’t we use Blanche, Rose, Dorothy and Sophia as a model to plot our own post-midlife sorority setup? As my panic dissipated, I could see an alternative to the other less-than-appealing options I had been considering ― and I wasn’t the only one.
Two of my friends in their 40s have been joking for more than a decade about spending old age on a shared front porch, sipping lemonade in Juicy Couture velour tracksuits.
Another friend in her 50s had already started to hash out more concrete details of a timeshare-style retirement plan with former college classmates. At some point, each single, successful woman would purchase a small home or condo in some desirable locale around the globe to be shared by the group of friends, thereby creating a rotating ring of old lady tenants and roommates. Sick of someplace or someone? Simply book a ticket and change your current live-in buddy.
“There are very few valiant knights, and more than likely, no one is coming to save us. Maybe it’s best to accept that our lives might not provide us with the traditional structure of having children or spouses to care for us in the end.”
A quick Google search showed my little collective of friends wasn’t alone in the notion of retiring among women. All around the globe, women are choosing to spend their later years together, some even going as far as to build female-only co-ops from the ground up, complete with built-in hierarchies requiring the younger women to help the older ones with grocery store runs and prescription pickups.
This brought to mind a story told to me by a retired octogenarian NASA engineer. While she was still in her 40s, her then 90-year-old grandmother had told her, “By the time you’re 70, half your friends are dead. If you don’t want to be alone at 90, make younger friends ― take younger women under [your] wing.”
Clearly, women taking care of women is nothing new. The plans these women were making seemed to me a more stable — and dare I say, more enjoyable — way to grow old than living alone or in a van. The same can be said for queer people who have long formed their own chosen families and relied on each other through the good times and the bad.
The idea began to feel exciting ― a way not only to mitigate loneliness and retain autonomy but also to remain vibrant and have fun well into our golden years. I could already picture which of my friends would fall into the role of hedonistic Blanche, filling our imagined home with a parade of younger men, and who would be Dorothy, with her pragmatism and dry wit. We would not only care for each other but feed off each other, keeping ourselves vital and young-hearted as long as possible.
While this still does seem like a distant future to me, just the notion of living among friends into old age has taken a weight off me that I didn’t even realize I was carrying. It has long been a dream of mine to not just travel, but to one day live abroad, so I have started sending like-minded friends listings for cheap Italian homes in need of renovation and teaching myself French in the hopes that maybe some of us will be brave enough to see out our later years overseas.
The truth is though, it might not go that way at all. My husband may outlive me, or we might simply be fortunate enough to spend our later years together. Maybe he’ll end up living with me and my friends ― or maybe he’ll live across the street. Time will tell, but for now, as I make my new IRA contributions and daydream with girlfriends about what cities we all might want to grow old in together, what I’m actually left with is this: There are very few valiant knights, and more than likely, no one is coming to save us. Maybe it’s best to accept that our lives might not provide us with the traditional structure of having children or spouses to care for us in the end.
I think that’s OK. Because even if we do have kids or partners in the picture, we’re still completely capable of saving ourselves ― and each other.
No matter what my living situation looks like in the years to come ― whether I’m officially living the Golden Girls life or not ― I will still want to live out the end of my days surrounded by friends. Few things in life are guaranteed, but the power and support of a circle of women is certain, no matter what stage of life we’re in.
Ashley Brooks is a writer, journalist and owner of a boutique Pilates studio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.