More older people living alone

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Did you notice a common myth of aging during the holidays? That one where older folks have family on whom to rely.

My colleague Suzanne and I realized the reality of elders living alone afresh when we talked about our mothers. “She’ll never agree to live with us” Suzanne said “so I try not to worry and think about what Mom gets out of living by herself.”

Suzanne’s Mom and mine are fiercely independent women who live alone. They do so despite the challenges of safety and staying connected. These living conditions reflect those of many Americans.

Suzanne and I -- both daughters in the throes of midlife -- worry about our Moms a bit more than they or we would like. Maybe we should stop worrying. We might help our mothers more if we thought through the strengths they achieve in living by themselves while planning for events that can make living alone an unhappy or risky.

Living alone is a reality of aging societies like ours; a reality many generations face together. The 2010 census data shows that more Americans than ever live alone. There’s media coverage nowadays that suggests we’ve come to see living alone as a mark of independence instead of a sure path to loneliness.

Myth: You’ll always have family who live with you in your old age.

There’s an American ideal that says you get married when you are young, have kids, and age into a place in your children’s home when you are old and incapable. This vision of family life in America is about 50 years out of date and a diversion from reality.

Our reality today is that, in those 50 years, the percent of Americans who live in single person households has jumped from 17 to 27%. More women of any age, compared with men, live by themselves.

Younger women are choosing this living situation in greater numbers than men - by preference or challenge - as we all marry or partner later in life. Women have a survival advantage - meaning they likely will outlive their male partners. Interestingly, the statistics on older women living alone show a slight decline in recent decades as men are living longer.

Improving life expectancies aside, about 10 percent of women aged 65 to 74 live by themselves and that figure increases to 15 percent for those over the age of 75. By comparison, about 5 percent of men who are 65 to 74 - the young old - live alone. And 5.5 percent of men older than 75 do so. The future of single person households in our aging society is an open question. The numbers of men as well as women living alone as young and midlife adults is creeping up as the ages of marriage and life partnerships similarly increases.

The freedom and autonomy associated with living alone when you are younger is emphasized by our concerns regarding other trends in living situations. When young adults return to reside with their parents, we question whether the independence we associate with early adulthood isn’t happening for some. By the way, that trend among young people is real - check out this Census summary for more information on this topic and others discussed here.

As with many things in later life, our expectations along with some misinformation tend to color our ideas about elders living alone. Those expectations don’t match everyday life as they reach for extremes and not daily life as we live it.

Myth: Living alone is easier when you are old – there’s just you.

On one end of the spectrum of expectations is the idea that living by yourself in late life is easy, a solitary pursuit. Cheaper and freer, you get to decide what you will or won’t do and save money in the process.

Cheaper alone is quickly disputed. Many reports show the additional costs of living alone, regardless of how old you are. Everything from food to transportation costs more when you buy for one. Add to that the consequences of the economic downturn for many American elders and those costs are magnified by sharply limited fixed incomes.

Declining rates of poverty among older Americans in general mean that many more elders today can and do choose to live alone. They pay the premium for a choice they embrace. But elders of color - specifically older Hispanic and African Americans - are at greater risk of poverty than European American elders. For these older Americans, life on their own is more often a financial challenge. One that may mean younger family members risk their own financial security as they support their elders.

Relationships are important for wellbeing throughout life and become more so as we age. Strong social connections - friendships as well as intimate partnerships - help us age well. Relationships are linked to less depression, greater resilience, and more contentment. We thrive when we consider and care for others. The patterns of our younger lives often impel us toward concern for others and into relationships.

Younger people commonly rely on work and parenting or other responsibilities for the connections they find there. The schedule of a job and getting kids to school gets younger people out and about. Suzanne is a good example here. With a full-time job and a busy home life with her husband and three teenage boys, Suzanne is not at all lost for sustaining relationships. Instead, she frets about finding more time to spend with her Mom. Her concern is that Mom, living alone and being retired, won’t see her, other relatives, and friends as often as she used to do.

Myth: Older people rely on decades-old relationships and don’t need to worry about new relationships.

Folks in young and midlife benefit from expectations they find and grow new relationships. Conversely, older people are often at a disadvantage. We tend view their relationships as static and unchanging, once past a certain birthday or a milestone like retirement. The idea of finding new friends somehow connotes youth. Conversely, elders are - as Suzanne expressed in thinking of her Mom - seen as relying on family and friends they’ve known for years.

There’s a catch, in later life, to relying on people you already know. The longer you live, the more likely you are to outlive your peer group. Counting on those you’ve known for decades may be comforting but ultimately turns out to be deceptive.

Especially for those who live to an old-old age, generally said to be age 85 and older today, you sometimes run out of social connections as you outlive those around you. Even more pragmatically, outliving your friends and relatives means you have fewer people on whom to call when you need someone, as you might in an emergency.

Sticking only to old relationships deprives you of the enjoyment and reciprocity found new connections. As with many aspects of aging, static is not an advantage. Diverse relationships that cross generational boundaries improve our wellbeing and help us age well.

Myth: If you find yourself old and alone, the best you can do is cope.

The risk of outliving your partner, if you’ve been married or in another long-term relationship, and your peers lies at the core of the more distressing mythical expectation about living alone in later life. Loss and living alone get tied together, creating the myth that old and alone equates to permanent loneliness.

Many elders don’t choose to live alone. They find themselves there after a major loss in their lives. Divorce or the death of a spouse are among the greatest and most common losses that elders experience in their relationships. In past decades, elders might respond to such a loss by electing to move in with their children. Recent studies of census data on families and elders’ living arrangements reveal that option is selected much less often by elders and their families today.

For many elders who consider whether or not to live alone, both preference and money matters dictate continuing to live in homes and neighborhoods where they’ve lived for decades. Suzanne said it when we spoke “Mom can’t imagine leaving her home - life somewhere else is unthinkable.” All of this means living alone in your home and without the neighborhood connects as children and other family members move on.

Life alone challenges elders who find themselves in the same place for decades. Given their druthers for the family home and familiar neighborhood, they no longer enjoy advantages of easy social networks once so common in their younger years.

Social forces that conspire to put you with other people are also easily lost in later life. Retirement may or may not be a choice. Regardless of how you reach retirement, the network a job affords disappears. Similarly, parenting roles change too. Children do eventually leave home and don’t require the same care and attention in any case. As a result, connections that come with parenting are lost in later life, too.

Social losses in role changes are compounded by the reality of experiencing more deaths among our family and friends as we age. Sad as it is, growing older puts us in closer contact with mortality, jeopardizing healthy grief and bereavement with threats of loneliness and isolation.

No matter the source, we generally anticipate, normalize, and tolerate lost relationships and the loneliness that often emerges in their aftermath. Old equals lonely in the views of many.

Neither extreme of expectations about living alone in later life are true nor should they be anyone’s reality. Free and easy is as unrealistic as lonely and isolated is sad. Suzanne and I spent a good deal of time trading our best tips for living on your own. Here are our top six:

• Review your options and resources, insuring that living alone is the best of your available choices. Then discuss living alone with those closest to you to gain support and to plan for contingencies.

• Think about changes you need to make in your daily routine to avoid isolation and create connections. Then make plans to be involved in your accustomed activities as well in taking up new pursuits. And consider how you might meet new people through a variety of activities and shared interests.

• Make and keep neighborhood connections. While it might take your closest relative some time to get to you in an emergency, your neighbors are often there in minutes. You can do the same for them, making this reciprocal arrangement valuable to all of you.

• Formalize plans for managing emergencies then record those plans in appropriate documents like an advanced directive for healthcare and a will. Share these plans and the documents with your designated representative - like your durable power of attorney - and other people close to you. Be sure you have a copy of any relevant documents easily accessible in your home.

• Survey your home to increase safety and security. Look for common home hazards like steps, floor coverings, and bathrooms and fix them. Share a spare key with a neighbor in case you lose your key or you need someone to get in to your home when you can’t open the door.

• Consider services that might make living alone safer and more enjoyable. Depending on your resources and preferences, having your house cleaned, getting assistance with transportation, or other using other services might give you peace of mind and allow you to do other things with the time you save. Talk with neighbors or consult a social worker in your community to find out what might be available.

What’s your experience of living alone as you age? By choice or consequence, whether you are new to living by yourself or relying on decades of experience, I’d like to her your thoughts and tips. Email me at and follow me on Twitter @SarahHKagan. Until next time, be well and stay active!

Dr. Sarah Kagan is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing where she specializes in geriatric issues and the care of older people. She is a visiting scholar at universities around the world and was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship for her work. Kagan lives in Philadelphia. Her column on aging myths appears in newspapers and on digital sites throughout Calkins Media Incorporated.

Dr. Sarah Kagan is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, where she specializes in geriatric issues and the care of older people. She is a visiting scholar at universities around the world and was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship for her work. Kagan lives in Philadelphia. Her column on aging myths appears in newspapers and on digital sites throughout Calkins Media Inc.

Dr. Sarah Kagan is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing where she specializes in geriatric issues and the care of older people.