The 21st century has resulted in an unprecedented movement of the elderly toward aging alone. Some of this trend is a product of the desire to age in place. For others, it is a matter of being able to afford to remain at home alone. In addition, having a broad variety of health care services available at home makes living alone possible for those seniors who are managing one or more personal health issues. This trend towards aging alone has produced a population of what Carol Marak* calls “elder orphans.” Today a third of older Americans are living by themselves compared to 10% of the elderly who lived alone in the 1950s.^
Going It Alone by Choice
Many of those folks living alone have made this lifestyle a conscious choice. In his book Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg says that “more people are aging alone because they have the financial resources to do it.” He goes on to say that “. . . medical advancements and healthier lifestyles have led to a steady decrease in disability rates. This in turn has kept older boomers on the job longer, lowering poverty rates that forced many to move in with their kids decades ago (35% in the 1950s, compared to less than 10% today).”^
Myths About Living Alone
An article published by AARP titled The Myths About Living Alone (AARP Bulletin, March 9, 2012) discusses some of the myths about people who live alone:
- Myth: Most people living alone are elderly.
Reality: The largest age group living alone is 35 to 64 years old.
- Myth: Older people living alone are lonely, unhappy and isolated.
Reality: Those who lived alone are more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors than their peers who were married.
- Myth: Aging alone leaves people extra-vulnerable if their health fails.
Reality: Most single people have strong social networks.
Who Will Do the Caregiving?
This phenomenon of living alone or, as the experts call it, “aging in place” does raise the question of who will do the caregiving when that time comes?
The NORC Center for Public Affairs Research** at the University of Chicago found that almost 70% of Americans believe they will be able to rely on their family to meet their long-term care needs, yet the Baby Boomers are the least likely generation in history to be married or have children, resulting in fewer candidates for caregiving being available. Over one-third of Boomers have never married, a jump of 50% from the previous generation. Between 20-25% are childless.
And older adults who consider themselves lonely are more likely to have trouble completing daily tasks. Those who are socially isolated are also at risk for medical complications, mental illness, mobility issues and health care access problems.
Marak* argues that a large number of seniors who are living alone are presented with some interesting challenges as they age into needing assistance. These challenges include:
- a high risk of losing independence and safety
- vulnerability to losing the decision-making capacity
- social and physical isolation
- no family member or designated surrogate to assist with decisions about health care
- little or no use of, or familiarity with, community resources
Being Alone on Your Terms
Living alone is a fulfilling and satisfying lifestyle for many people. Being prepared to meet the needs and wants of this lifestyle are critical to maintaining the highest possible degree of life satisfaction into one’s later years. Here are some useful tips to guide you:
- Speak up – talk openly about concerns and what it means to have or not have children.
- Act early – how early you start planning makes a tremendous difference. If you don’t plan, you are designating control to somebody else.
- Keep a good supply of friends – social connections can help with practical needs, like transportation, shopping and medical appointments.
- Appoint a proxy – who is your most trusted friend or relative? Are they comfortable making decisions on your behalf if you can’t? Does that person know your preferences if they’re going to help you in time of need?
- Consider moving – do you need a place where you are less likely to be isolated and lonely?
- Live well – eat healthy foods, exercise and keep your brain sharp.
Planning for future needs should happen now to maximize your ability to stay in control for as long as possible.
* Elder Orphans: A Baby Boomer’s Aging-Alone Plan, by Carol Marak. Huff Post 50. Jan 18,2016
^ Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, by Eric Klinenberg. Penguin Press. 2012