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Part 6: Aging Alone

woman stands in front of house
Utah Public Radio, Elaine Taylor

"My Address Is" is a Utah Public Radio series exploring Utah issues associated with how and where we live. This is part six of six.

“My name is LaRue, and that's L-a capital R-u-e. It means ‘the street’ and I always figured it meant I’d been walked on all my life [laughter], which is not true. Anyways, my address is ‘home.’”

As baby boomers hit retirement and the U.S. population ages, more and more people are left living alone in their later years. And more are choosing to stay at home.

LaRue Willis was born in Idaho in 1928. She married her husband in 1953 and together they had eight children. Three years ago her husband passed away, leaving LaRue to forge a new life for herself – alone. On the day I met with LaRue in her ranch-style house in northern Cache Valley, she described how hard the last few years had been.

“The hardest part is the loneliness. Sometimes I get panic attacks when I am alone and it’s really difficult.”

To pass the time and fight off isolation, LaRue likes to take walks and exercise at the senior center, she also bakes. LaRue enjoys the activities she can still accomplish after suffering a stroke.

She says the benefits of being married extend beyond companionship.

“Being married entitles you to do a lot of things that you don’t get to do alone… you can go places and things but you’re not included.”

I asked LaRue if she had ever considered getting re-married.

“Oh yes, I would like to. Actually, I think it would be nice to be married, but I don’t really want to get married, I’d just like to be married. I really miss the companionship.”

To stay active in the community, LaRue visits the Adult Day Center and gets together with women in the Red Hat Society. Though she enjoys the activities, she wishes more people would get involved. The low turnout to some of the elderly-friendly events in Logan is a little surprising. According to Reed Harding, executive director of the Adult Day Center, 50 percent of seniors in the valley have no family in the area. He says even when seniors do have family close by, they can’t always provide the socialization and support that is needed.

Again, LaRue.

“People don’t pay attention to older people. We don’t talk about the same things as you do, we often can’t hear and we often can’t speak as clearly as they would like to make us speak, and so they don’t include us in conversation. I’ve always been active in the community and I really miss the activity and being in the center of things.”

LaRue says despite the loneliness that she can experience living without her spouse, maintaining the connections to the community she’s been a part of for years keeps her from moving.

“I lived totally alone when my husband first died. I stayed at an assisted living (center) but I was really quite lonesome for my neighbors and friends… I like being in my home because I like to cook and I enjoy my neighbors and I like to do a little yard work.”

For LaRue, and many others like her, the feelings of loneliness caused by the loss of a spouse are softened by the joy found in maintaining relationships and a sense of normalcy in a time of great change.

I asked LaRue if she values her independence.

“Oh yes, even though it’s hard sometimes. Because like today, when I went to organize my cupboards, I don’t see as well as I would like to, but I did it and it makes me feel good.”