Lifestyle & Culture

Elder Orphan? C’est Moi!

Above and on the front, iStock

By Nancy McKeon

MY OLD-AGE PLAN involves getting a dog. But more about that in a sec.

Now, it’s exciting to be in the New York Times, even as a cog in the wheel of a demographic train that is rapidly gaining speed. I’m an “elder orphan”—no spouse, no kids, out here on my own.

What should I be doing about this? After all, it’s something that AARP takes quite seriously, as do all their advertisers for accident-monitoring devices and elder care and who knows what else (I actually don’t know what else: I tend to hang up as soon as I hear that fuzzy delay signaling a pitch from “James” in some call center in Mumbai).

I should get a dog, right? Just hang on another moment.

I grant that a one-level house would make sense, even though my sister has a friend who says that if she didn’t have stairs to climb she’d have fat thighs instead.

But I have my heart set not on a modest suburban rambler but a co-op apartment in a big city, in this case my native New York.

In the city I can give up driving. I love to drive, but at some point it really be won’t be a good thing, for me or the world around me. And what we New Yorkers call a “good building” will have staff to do things, including errands and walking the dog when I can’t or just don’t want to.

There, see, a dog!

I used to think New York was perfect for growing old because everything—from furniture to a bagel and coffee—could be delivered to your door. With the Internet, of course, that’s true just about everywhere, and I think a lot of us will be the better for it.

But here’s how greedy I am: I want the laundry and dry cleaner to deliver, too, and I want to shop for my groceries but have the supermarket deliver the heavy things by bike.

That’s actually pretty close to what marketers have been predicting for years: that as we age we buy fewer things and instead buy more services. I’m more than happy to oblige. And I’m willing to bet that the marketers are right, that I won’t be alone. The Times reported that by 2030 about 16 percent of women 80 to 84 will be childless, compared with about 12 percent in 2010, according to a 2013 report by AARP. I’m not near that age cohort yet, but then again I’m not getting younger.

My laundry list of wishes ignores, of course, the real world of possible ill health, of age-related difficulty in getting around and the high cost of whichever medicines I’ll have to take to keep my heart beating and my kidneys functioning.

What I want to concentrate on in my “young old age” is daily structure. So as I take aim at a new apartment, I’m looking at buildings that will accept that dog I want. Those whimpers and that look—you dog owners out there know what I’m talking about—are enough to get me out of bed at a reasonable hour.

Now this dog, this ideal dog, has to be kinda old, with a little less bounce in his step, just like his owner. I adopted my last dog, Jeremiah, at age 9 (his age, not mine), and we walked and walked around Washington DC for hours each day. He was big (a Saint Bernard mix) and slow, but the boy loved to amble, and so we did. Jeremiah died this past winter a month shy of 14, so I gave him five good years—and vice versa.

The dog and  a city have one thing in common: walking. And you’re never alone with a dog, and the pup gives you cover to walk a little more slowly than the office-goers around you, and is a built-in ice breaker with people you don’t know, who are wandering around with their pups as well. There’s an entire world of dog owners, and I will be happy to be a part of it again.

Walking around the city is really just code for “getting out of the house.” The dog is only part of that. Joining something will be important too. I’ll be closer to family when I’m in New York, but maybe I will find a book club. Then there’s church—any church. And any number of charities—not the fancy ones whose events double as photo ops, but non-glamorous charities in need of worker bees. A city is full of those, and I think we’ve all learned by now that trying to do good for others in fact does us just as much good, even more.

Admittedly, this is not the most sensible or comprehensive plan for moving into old-old age on my own. But, I have a smartphone and a computer and a will and a trust agreement, and my siblings know where all my assets are. So with those things covered, I’m going to concentrate on living alone in the best possible way. And get a dog.

Nancy McKeon is managing editor of MyLittleBird. 

11 thoughts on “Elder Orphan? C’est Moi!

  1. I loved reading about your plan for old age, especially the idea of getting a dog! It’s inspiring how you’ve thought about every detail, from the practicalities of city living to the emotional support a furry friend can offer. The companionship and structure a pet provides are invaluable, and it’s heartwarming to see how much joy and purpose they can bring to our lives. Here’s to many happy walks and a fulfilling future!

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Thanks! Since I wrote that piece I have in fact bought a wonderful co-op in New York, right on the East River. And I’ve already had three dogs! My current guy, Milo, a Sharpei-Beagle cross (intentional, apparently, a Sharp Eagle Dog), is only 7, a little young for me, with a lotta pep in his step. But it’s good for me, and, from what I see, I’m good for him as well.

  2. Eliz says:

    Perfect sense – and all the reasons why I bought a condo in Old Town Alexandria the year I retired.

  3. Nancy says:

    My plan, but in Philly. I am, thankfully, still a “we,” and one set of kids and grandkids are in Philly. Walkable, great restaurants, and close to an airport to visit the other set of kids & grandkids in Denver. Oh, and still only a few hours from where the boat is in Annapolis.

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      sounds just about perfect!

  4. Terri Shaw says:

    I used to think it would be great to retire in NY until I developed a disability that makes it almost impossible to go up and down steps of subway, not to mention hailing a cab in the rain, or walking long distances with or without a dog. The Times recently reported that when a subway station on the upper east side was renovated whoever did it neglected to install an elevator–in blatant violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
    At least in DC the Metro elevators and escalators work at least part of the time.

  5. You are a woman after my own heart. Nancy.

    That’s why we have chosen to live in downtown Lancaster PA and have joined the Lancaster Downtowners ( which is part of the national “village to village” movement. Most major cities have a virtual village with a network of like-minded city-lovers.

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      That sounds great! The Village where I currently live in DC charges $600 for you to become a volunteer! If you don’t use any services, the money is tax-deductible, but really! (There are other DC neighborhoods that have more community-minded ideas and work on a neighbor-helping-neighbor basis, which is what I thought the Village movement was about in the first place.) At any rate, we all know about NORCs, “naturally occurring retirement communities,” often suburban nabes whose homeowners have aged together and don’t want to move to Florida. I just thought I could apply the same principle to an apartment building. We’ll see!

  6. Ginny Hamill says:

    Best urban planning I’ve seen in years!

    1. Nancy McKeon says:


  7. Jura says:

    You go girl! It all sounds like a great plan and a really interesting life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *