According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, the percentage of people age 65 and older living alone increased from six percent in 1900 to 29 percent in 1990. And then it declined to 26 percent by 2014.
But that's the average of men and women. Divide them up and what you get is that the number of women in that age group living alone declined from a high of 38 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2014.
For men, the direction reversed beginning in 1990 from 15 percent living alone to 18 percent in 2014. Here's the chart:
One reason for the change, reports Pew, is that an increase in life expectancy means that more women are living with spouses rather than as widows. Further, says Pew:
”Overall, women still make up a majority of the 12.1 million older U.S. adults living alone, but their share has fallen significantly over the past quarter century – from 79% in 1990 to 69% in 2014.”
This isn't intended to be a post about statistics of living alone but a couple of graphs set the stage a bit. This one, also from the Pew research, shows how many more men and women 85 and older are living alone. Look at the yellow areas in the two bottom graphs:
Okay, I'm done with charts and statistics. If you want more detail, the Pew Research study has a lot of it.
What I would like us to talk about today is how we feel about living alone or not, and what appears to be – at least when you read as much about ageing as I do – a media epidemic of scaring the pants off old people who do live alone and their adult children.
Take a look at these three photos from, in order, a news magazine story about elder living arrangements, a caregiving website and the website of a regional U.S. assisted living corporation:
How do you feel about these photos? How do they make you feel about yourself? What do you suppose younger adults think about old people when they repeatedly see this type of photograph?
These are only a sampling. I could show you dozens of similar stock photographs of lonely, frightened old people many of which accompany stories about “the dangers of seniors living alone.” Go ahead, Google it.
Commercial retirement communities use them as sales tools and reporters or editors unthinkingly use them as illustrations for such stories as the Pew research which, in this case, is neutral on the reasons elders choose one living arrangement over another.
This is not the first time I've ranted here about alone not being a synonym for lonely. Nor does living alone in old age automatically mean that something awful will happen to you or that you're afraid all the time. But the media is good at overkill.
Old people wind up living alone for many reasons: widowhood, divorce, never married and hey – how about this one: choice.
An excellent New Zealand ageing researcher, Dr Judith Davey, who blogs for Age Concern New Zealand and is also a senior research associate with the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, notes that the most frequent answer from elders about why they live alone is “freedom, choice and control and independence”. Further
”One person summed it up,” wrote Davey, “'(living alone) allows us to do what we want, when we want, and how we want'. This does not sound like a pathological state!” [as some have defined elders who live alone].
I live alone because I always have - well, almost always. I was married for six years and I lived with another man for four years but that's just 10 years out of the 60 I've lived since I left home. I'm comfortable in my aloneness.
When I think about it too hard, I can convince myself that living alone is a certain kind of selfishness akin to not having children. But I don't want my thinking interrupted as I write this any more than I ever wanted a short human tugging at my sleeve.
And, anyway, who does that selfishness – if that's what it is – harm? No one I can see.
It's important to acknowledge that sometimes I am lonely. Lonely for what my one-time father-in-law explained about the years he and his wife had lived together: “there's another heartbeat in the house,” he said.
But having a partner is no guarantee. I was deeply lonely during the last couple of years of my crumbling marriage.
As the above photographs imply, maybe I'll fall down the stairs (if I had any) or maybe I'll have a stroke with no one around to help. Maybe I will become too weak to bathe myself or too addled to pay the bills. Or cook. Or...
All true and there is a lot we could discuss about that and about becoming socially isolated or gradually losing our minds to dementia and more – all the stuff that the age media uses to scare us into buying retirement community condos.
But the truth is a large majority of elders make it to the grave living on their own so for now, I'll take my chances and flatter myself that I will be able to recognize, if the time comes, that I need to change my living arrangements.
What I am curious about today is how TGB readers who live alone – and partnered readers who have thought about the possibility of being alone one day in their old age – deal with living by yourselves.
Do you like it? Did you choose it? Do you worry about living alone? Would you like to change your living circumstances? What would trigger such a change?
Have you thought about other kinds of arrangements? Retirement community? Take someone into your home if it is big enough? A Golden Girls household? Co-housing? Something else?
Let us know.