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Episode #26 - Navigating the Solo Aging Journey


Eric Blake: Welcome to another episode of the Simply Retirement Podcast, where we simply focus on retirement planning so you can focus on retirement living. I'm your host, Eric Blake. On this show, we also go beyond just the financial aspects of retirement but also some of the non-financial aspects of retirement planning that many women face on their retirement journey, which can often be just as important, if not even more important, to living a successful retirement.

Today, we're going to be joined by Carol Marak. Carol is the go-to authority on aging alone. After spending nearly a decade helping her parents with aging issues, Carol had a wake-up call. She asked herself who will do for me all the things that I've been doing for my parents? This led her to evaluate her own situation and ultimately create an assessment which helped her design a roadmap that guided her to solving the inevitable complexities of aging alone. Today we're going to talk to Carol about her own journey as well as some of the tools and resources that she can help offer others who may be navigating life as a solo ager. 

Carol Marak, welcome to the Simply Retirement Podcast.

Carol Marak: Thank you, Eric. I'm so happy to be here. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

Eric Blake: Absolutely. We got a chance to get to know each other a little bit over the last couple of months since we connected on LinkedIn. Actually, the first time I got a chance to hear you was at the FPA, Financial Planning Association, in Dallas a couple of years ago. I was really intrigued by what you brought to the table during your speech at that time. Again, at some point after that, we connected on LinkedIn and you actually came to our International Women's Day event that we held just a few weeks ago, which I really appreciate that. It was an amazing event.

I wanted to start off, it's okay with you, one of the things that I think would help people as far as just a definition of solo aging, again, it's not a new concept, but I think that term maybe has started to gain some traction. Maybe it's all because of you, but that term has started to gain some traction recently. I think it helps people just identify, people don't want to feel like they're the only ones out there, but if they can identify with others who may be going through the same challenges, dealing with some of the same things as they prepare for retirement or even going through retirement. So maybe just start with, what is a solo ager?

Understanding Solo Aging

Carol Marak: Sure, absolutely. Well, there are several definitions that mean the same thing. I like using solo aging or aging alone. That can mean several things to different people because a lot of people think solo aging means just single people who have no family. However, I know individual couples who are married or partnered and they have children, however, their kids live at a distance and they consider themselves solo aging.

So, I like to think of it as it's a self-identity type of term, depends on how a person identifies with it. Ultimately, a geriatrician in New York said it put it in the terms of elder orphan, someone who has no family and they have very little or minimal support from the community around them. She classifies that person as a solo ager or aging alone. However, to me, it's really someone who feels that they have very few people to rely on for help.

Eric Blake: One of the things I was going to ask you about, too, is I wouldn't... My mother, I've shared this on our show multiple times, that my mother, she's part of my why. She was divorced before I was even a year old. She has gone through a couple of divorces, unfortunately, but she's very independent. Not that I wouldn't ever do whatever I could to help her, but I think part of what even drives her to be a successful business owner, and she's getting closer to retirement herself, is feeling like she would like to maintain that independence as long as possible, too. So, could that possibly fall into that solo ager category?

Carol Marak: Oh, absolutely. Does she live nearby?

Eric Blake: She does, yeah. She's not that far, 15, 20 minutes. Or, here in the Dallas area, everything is 20 minutes to 45 minutes away. So yeah. So here she's close.

Carol Marak: Yeah. Well, I would consider her a solo ager; however, people would argue with me. I have a very large group on Facebook called Elder Orphans, and I even have administrators and moderators who help me monitor the group, and they would argue with me. They said, "No, she has a son nearby. So she's not a solo ager." To me, who really cares? If someone identifies with the term of aging alone and have few to rely on, and really, I don't think it really matters, quite frankly. So, if she identifies with it, so would I.

The Importance of Self-Assessment

Eric Blake: Well, ultimately, I think it's just knowing the resources that are available whether you consider yourself that or not. I think one of the things I wanted to do with this podcast when I first started it was again, go beyond just the basic financial challenges of retirement. All those are important. Social Security, tax planning, all those different things that I help with. Talking about some of these others more can be more emotional in many cases, but just knowing where to find resources and where to go and who I reach out to when I've got questions about some of these issues can be more emotional.

That's what I thought was really interesting about your webinar that I got a chance to hop on, is you're really making a difference in a lot of people's lives with what you're doing. The ladies on that webinar asked a lot of great questions, but a lot of them centered around, "I just didn't know. I didn't know where to go to. I didn't know who to ask to. Then I found you, found Carol, and now I have some resources." So I think it's great what you're doing, but if you can just share, go a little bit farther back and what led you to doing what you're doing today?

Carol Marak: Well, that's a great question and it really has put me in a place where I am today. I was a caregiver. My sisters and I helped both our parents. My mom had several chronic illnesses as she got older, and my dad lived with Alzheimer's. So it took the three of us to really navigate their healthcare, all of their needs that they required. Believe me, it was hands-on, for the three of us. It was incredibly burdensome. However, I don't mean to put my parents down because I mean, they felt the effects of aging, and it's really horrific. As I'm getting older, I really know that. I'm recognizing that. Because it was filled with lots of tasks and constant attention to make sure they were safe and independent in their home, it took 24/7 from the three of us.

So after about seven years of helping them, my mom passed away. Then, four years later, my dad did. Once both of them were gone, for some reason, I was reflecting on what I just went through. My experience of helping them. It totally overwhelmed me, Eric. I thought, oh my... It truly shocked me so much so that I started to cry, seriously. I thought, who in the world was going to do all that for me? I have no children. I have siblings. However, they're older than I am, and I help them. They don't help me. So it really shocked and worried me for some time. Fortunately, I was about 54, 55 when that happened. Thank God that it gave me ample time to at least have some type of strategy in place that I could put in place to make sure that I could remain as independent as possible. So that's what happened.

So I started to plan. I remember putting a huge poster board across my wall in my office, and I just started making notes on it, thinking back all the things that my sisters and I did for our parents. I started making notes and post-it notes and just breaking it down into different categories, which I came up with 10 domains that we help them with. Which are health, housing and location, legal matters, financial matters, health, making sure their health was good, making sure that they had transportation because we drove them everywhere. Then fun and engagement, life purpose, faith and spirituality. These were all the things that we helped our parents with, helped them make sure that they had these types of activities to maintain and help them age more actively and gracefully.

Ten Key Domains

So that's what I started to pay attention to. I came up with a way to... I did a lot of research. I came up with ways to assess my finances. I knew that was probably my worst, I guess my highest risk. Sure enough, it was. Then, my social connections were number two, and where I lived was number three because I was living in the suburbs, totally isolated from many of my friends and family. I had to drive a car everywhere. So, I was car-dependent, and I knew that wouldn't work. So I just started to think back of all the things we did for them, my parents. I thought, well, how as a single person... I knew I probably wouldn't remarry again. So that's what I did.

I just started to think of ways I can really... I don't like the term strategies because that sounds so difficult, but just different ways that I could alleviate some of the challenges of transportation, of being isolated, of not having good health. How can I take my health to the top level? Have it be excellent or optimal rather than just normal or moderately healthy. I knew if I'm at home alone, I had better have excellent and optimal health as best I could. So I started with my doctor there. With my finances, I hired a financial advisor and he helped me take it from there. I'm very grateful that we did. So I hope that gives you some insight.

Eric Blake: No, that's awesome. I think that you think about the challenges. One of the things that you talked about that I really like was it's difficult sometimes to step back and self-assess because you've got to figure out where am I at? What is my point A? I have got to figure out where I'm starting from first, and then I can't really take any actions or have a strategy beyond that until I know where I'm at. Where am I at today?

Carol Marak: Exactly. So many people that I come in contact with, and most of them are women by the way, and they say, "Where do I start?" It is so true. It's so overwhelming. I asked the same question and I thought, okay, let's just take a step back, Carol, and not get too overwhelmed here. I was 55, and I felt, oh, well, thank goodness I'm 55., I still have plenty of time. Or at least I felt like I did, and I did. So I try not to think about all 10 domains at one time because a person can't handle that much information at one time. At least, I can't. So, I just broke it down into different aspects. I just did a lot of research, Eric, on how do I assess my finances? How do I assess my health or what have you? So that's how I came up with my assessment.

Which reminds me, my assessment when I was helping both my parents, I come from high-tech and this was early 2000, and my parents were starting to need a lot of assistance. I remember doing... I was at work, and I was just thinking about them, and I started doing research online, thinking, how do I assess my parents' aging? How do I assess what they need? I could not find anything. I just knew there has got to be an assessment that a person can apply to at least open their minds and open the door to where they're falling short or their weaknesses and where they're excelling. So that way, it heads you in the right direction. You won't become overwhelmed with all the things that you need to make improvements on or with, but it gives you a place to start.

Eric Blake: Well, I think the great entrepreneurial stories are, "Hey, I found a gap somewhere, and I went in and figured out a solution to it." On of the things I would be interested in your feedback on, because you touched on some of the different areas that you feel like are important for people to address, which of those, again, of those 10, maybe what are the one or two you would say maybe start with? Or should you do it that way? How would you go about, just again, getting the ball started? Would you tackle finances first? Would you tackle health? Where would you start as far as which would be the first piece of that puzzle?

Carol Marak: Well, Eric, that's the purpose of the assessment. I cannot advise anyone where to start because we're all different. However, I think a person instinctively knows where they're falling short. If you're going to speak in general terms, the top four are typically health, finances, legal matters, and social connections. Now, which one of those I think a person would instinctively know where they're falling short? That's how I feel about it.

Eric Blake: I tend to agree, but again, sometimes, personally, it's harder to be honest with ourselves than anybody else sometimes to try to figure out where is that first weakness I need to tackle. So, if you don't mind, talk a little bit about your assessment, who is it best suited for, what exactly does it entail as thinking about that as maybe that's the starting point?

Proactive Planning

Carol Marak: Sure, thanks. I really highly advise anyone who is at the age of 45 and starting to think about retirement, not going to retire but starting pre-retiree, someone who has 10 to 15 years before they retire,, to take the assessment. There are 45-year olds who come to me and ask me, or especially women, they'll say, "I'm not going to have children. I know I won't. I'm 45. I'm not even married." Or perhaps they're just engaged or perhaps they're newly divorced or widowed. I mean, that happens sometimes to a few women who their husbands die, and they're 42 years old. So they become aware that they will likely be alone as they grow older. I think it's so wonderful. I mean, don't be afraid of it. I mean, perhaps you will remarry, or perhaps you have a very strong support or social network, but it's a good idea just to learn what other weaknesses that you may be facing or could be facing.

I know for me, my health was pretty good. I would say it was above moderately healthy. However, after studying my family medical history, it made me aware of other things perhaps, or genetic things that I could be facing down the road. Like arthritis, could be high blood pressure. Alzheimer's, because my dad had Alzheimer's. So, knowing my family medical history, which that's one of the questions that's asked in the assessment for health is how well or how confident do you feel about knowing your family medical history? Then I teach people, if you're not really confident in what you know about them, then give them strategies and ways to learn about them.

Fortunately for me, I have a fairly large family in terms of my grandparents had a lot of kids because they were farmers and they had a slew of kids. So I have a lot of cousins. I can still ask them today or even just have conversations around, well, what are you facing? Now that we're older, it seems like that's all we talk about are doctor appointments, unfortunately. We're so much fun.

So, there's just some ways that you can retrieve information about your potential challenges that you can face. I think we need to be aware of those. Even now, I'll be 73 next month, and I'm telling you, Eric, things are changing in my body. I don't care how healthy or how well my nutrition or how good my nutrition is or how much I exercise, my body's starting to change and I feel it. I'm aware of... So I think we just need to start just becoming aware of those signs, those telltale signs. So, I think that's what the assessment really brings your attention to. Now, I don't want people to be stressed about it, but I just think we need to be more aware of what's going on and where we stand, where we are currently, no matter what age you are.

Eric Blake: Well, and again, that's where it's very similar to the process we use. When somebody asks us, "Hey, can you help me out with my retirement planning?" You've got to start with an assessment. So we sit down, we identify where you're at today, what are your resources, but also more importantly probably where do you want to be? What are your goals? What keeps you up at night? What are your biggest concerns? At that point, we can start putting together a plan. I always talk about retirement planning very much like a puzzle where you've got all these different pieces. You even touched on that a little bit where you've got the financial, you've got the family, the health, all these different pieces, but somehow we got to start putting all that together in order to move forward.

Carol Marak: That's right. That's right. You have to know where you stand right now in order to put those pieces together and move forward because if you don't know where you are right now, there's no way you're going to go... You can make any improvements.

Eric Blake: Exactly. Well, so let's talk about that a little bit then. So somebody takes your assessment and they identify maybe their top two or three biggest challenges or where they may want to start taking action. What is that next step? What would you encourage them to do beyond that once they've identified where their weaknesses may be?

Real-Life Success

Carol Marak: Sure. As a matter of fact, I had just recently worked with a couple, and they had both lost their parents. Neither one of them, which is quite surprising, have siblings. So they don't have nieces or nephews, and nor do they have children. They're totally alone, the two of them. I am telling you, Eric, she was scared to death, and I get that. She was exactly where I was when I woke up to the fact that I'm aging alone. She was scared, and bless her heart.

So what we did, we just took it a day at a time, a week at a time. I'm telling you, when she knew where she and her husband were falling short and where she was falling short in terms of the assessment, I'm telling you, she just took off. She and I, I gave her direction on where to start because she was terrified about both their health. So she started doing research around some of the illnesses or chronic diseases that both of them had and started talking with her doctors, started getting direction from them, talking with care managers on how they can start preparing.

They were in their 60s. She wanted to know how can they start right now preparing for 10 years from now when their health may be failing even worse than it is today. How can we stay socially active as a couple or even as a single person in case she loses her husband or vice versa. So we just... Well, not we. I gave her insight. She took my workshop and I mentored her, and she went to town. She did a lot of research. She put together... She spoke with patient advocates, care managers. Of course, they already had a financial advisor, so they were pretty well set in that arena. No legal, didn't have her legal papers or documents in place. However, she started with their health first because she knew that that was their weakest point. Then it was social connections. That's where she started.

After about six weeks, I'm telling you, Eric, it was a total, it's just six weeks, just six weeks. She started feeling so much more confident, and I could just see a change in her. She didn't come to our meetings via Zoom, terrified. Every two weeks it was different, her essence and her energy, and she was just so much more relaxed. So by the time the six weeks were over, she was like, "Carol, I think I have it. I think I am getting it now. I'm feeling so much more confident. I even hired a care manager." It was fun to watch, and that was just six weeks.

Eric Blake: I know the feeling. I've seen it myself where it's almost like their shoulders become lighter. There's been a weight lifted off. Once you can answer the question, am I going to be okay financially? In your case, am I going to be okay with navigating this retirement journey and dealing with some of these other things? Again, finances is just one part of this. Again, if we're talking about this as this huge puzzle, finances is just one part. Now, actually, that part can influence a lot of the others.

Carol Marak: That's right.

Eric Blake: If you're worried about your money, that's going to impact your health, that's going to impact a lot of your other areas, but it is still just one area. So yes, seeing that their eyes light up when you say, "Yes, you're going to be okay, here's how we're going to do this. Here's how we're going to manage your retirement income, and everything's going to be good. You're going to be fine."

Carol Marak: That's right, which you bring up a good point. All the different aspects play into the other one. They all affect each other. Like you say, finances affect your health, and your health affects your social connections. Many people will remain isolated because they're either immobile or they're not feeling well or what have you. Yeah, and it's pretty amazing. Even transportation or your health will affect your transportation.

For example, when I moved to an urban area living in a high-rise, I started walking more, walking my errands. I didn't need my car as much. So as I walked my errands, to the library, to the post office, to the bank, to the grocery store, which is all pretty close to me, my health started improving, my mobility. I started getting stronger physically, and I started meeting more people because I was out and about. I have more social connections now than ever in my entire life. So I never feel like I'm isolated or alone or lonely anymore because of that. So it is really remarkable how one will affect the other.

Eric Blake: Absolutely. Well, Carol, so let's think about this. So, somebody in our audience who may be feeling a little bit intimidated or feeling a little bit lost, not necessarily knowing where I should go from here, if you could leave with just one promising, one hopeful, encouraging thought for our listeners today, what would that be?

Expert Guidance

Carol Marak: You are not alone. There are thousands of people, or maybe millions or hundreds of thousands of people anyway who have that same sinking, depressing thought of... Or overwhelmed, I should say. Feeling overwhelmed. You're not alone. We've all been there at some point in our lives. The fact that you are aware of it is half the battle in my opinion, because now that gives you the opportunity, it has awakened you to, oh, what do I do now? It just woke you up.

What's remarkable, once you wake up to that fact, then it'll be just watch how different doors will start opening for you, and you'll start noticing things. You'll start reading different articles like how to improve your health, for example. I mean, just in your general feed of emails that come in, maybe the magazines or the websites that you subscribe to or newsletters you subscribe to, but you'll start pinpointing what it is that where you need to start or improvements that you need to make.

Eric Blake: Well, that's excellent. So, based on where somebody may be in their journey, starting out, feeling a little bit lost, just trying to find the right place to start, or maybe they're progressing along the way, they feel pretty good, but they're just looking for maybe some direction. How can the audience connect with you, learn more about some of these tools and resources that you've shared for solo agers?

Carol Marak: Sure, thanks. My website is carolmarak.com, and that's C-A-R-O-L-M-A-R-A-K dot com. My email address is Carol@carolmarak.com.

Eric Blake: You also have a book, right?

Carol Marak: I do. Solo and Smart. Yeah, absolutely.

Eric Blake: We'll make sure we share all these resources in the episode summary. Anything else that you want to add before we wrap up today?

Carol Marak: Just reach out to me anytime. Send an email if you have any questions. I've been there, done that, and unfortunately at times I pivot backwards and I have to readjust to making different improvements. So I'm right there with you.


Eric Blake: That's a key. We do the same thing. When we have a new client, I tell them, "That financial plan we did for you yesterday is about as good as the next 24 hours because something's going to change."

Carol Marak: That's right.

Eric Blake: So we have to continue to reassess, adjust, and make adaptions. Well, Carol, thank you so much for joining me today. Please be sure to reach out to Carol if you are interested in going through her assessment, looking at some of these resources that she's been able to share with us today. Thank you so much for listening today. Please like, follow, and share the show. If you would like to learn more about our firm, you can visit our website at blakewealthmanagement.com.

To listen to previous episodes, ask us a question, maybe suggest a topic, or access a lot of our other free resources, you can go to www.thesimplyretirementpodcast.com. We're also on YouTube at the Simply Retirement Podcast and all the other major podcast platforms. We will see you again on the next episode of the Simply Retirement Podcast. In the meantime, please remember that retirement is not the end of the road. It is the start of a new journey.

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