I'm divorcing at age 77. What can I do?

Q: My wife recently moved out, and I am unsure how to begin life over at age 77. She wants a divorce and I cannot imagine my life without her.

A: While not knowing the details of your situation, I acknowledge your predicament. Life transitions pose difficulties for many reasons. First, the emotional havoc of that news is tough to digest. It creates pain, anxiety or possibly guilt, then drains a person’s vitality. And people often see change as a problem rather than an opportunity. Further, it will not be just one alteration in your life as you know it, but many variables co-occurring.

What gets us through challenging events is our mindset toward those circumstances and whether or not the internal roadblocks to overcoming them will outweigh the external barriers. Our mental attitude toward change or those conditions may (or may not) allow us to transform the negative situation into reinvention of one’s self.

Psychologists say that change requires resisting well-established behavioral patterns, which means you will work against unconscious thinking and doing. All the automatic processes your brain made when you were a couple will be altered. Habits you formed over the years in your everyday life existing with another person will be different now.

So what can you do?

Take time to assess your situation. This does not mean you need to accept the new environment you are living in immediately, but pause to understand what you are feeling, knowing that it will be a grueling emotional time in the days, months and years ahead. You may feel failure, guilt, loneliness, grief and confusion. Do not gloss over your circumstances or emotions in your effort to “move on.”

Talk to others about what you are feeling. This could be with family, friends or trained professionals. For most people, expressing their emotions and thoughts to others helps them process the situation. Reciting thoughts aloud compels us to slow down, integrating and coordinating information across brain regions. By engaging the amygdala, the neuronal networks regulating thoughts, language and behavior, evaluate sensory information and assign the appropriate emotional response. 

Understand the statistics. More than one in three people divorcing in the United States are over age 50. For some folks staying in a low-quality marriage means a detriment to their health and well-being. Some ask themselves, “Does this marriage make me happier?” Or “Is this marriage fulfilling?” People are living longer, and “gray divorce” is rising. As of 2022, nearly 16 million people in the U.S. age 65 and older live alone. That is three times as many people in that age group compared to the 1960s. Economic gains by women, couples drifting apart, and attitudes toward marriage are just a few reasons. Thus, the risk of divorce among older adults, who are now primarily Baby Boomers, seems to be trending upward.

Put social services in place. How will you provide self-care through this transition? Are there resources available if you need help physically or mentally? Who can you reach out to when having a tough day? Consider if you will need assistance in the future. Who might care for you as you age? Many of those 65+ will not re-partner. Autonomy can be a two-sided coin—you may fare well living alone, but many older adults report a high incidence of loneliness. What can you do now to thwart loneliness and isolation to ward off health consequences down the road?

Look toward the future. While you may not feel a sense of stability for quite some time, know that as the years pass, many find a sense of security and connection they may not have had previously. Authentic friendships with other older fish in the sea may offer new possibilities. Older adults tend not to sweat the small stuff. Dream of your second act. How could you live out this part of your life? Is there a job you always wanted to do or a group of individuals you were often drawn to? Could you pursue an interest you have put on hold?

It’s never too late. The later years often open doors we thought were closed. Options for a new hobby, career, relationship, or focus on personal passions are obtainable. A divorce can bring about different choices once thought to be impossible. While it may take time to process the grief from the end of your marriage, divorce at any age can provide new opportunities for life, laughter and even love.

Karen Casanovas, PCC, CPCC, CLIPP is a health, wellness and simplified living coach practicing in Anchorage. If you have questions write to her at info@karencasanovas.com.