old and aloneOh, to be old and on your own. That used to be one of the media’s favorite scare stories. To some extent, it still is. The reality, though, is a whole lot different. Over the past half-century or so, what it means to be aging on your own has been changing dramatically – in many ways, for the better.

The Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) released a report called “Aging alone in America.” It was written by Eric Klinenberg (you know him from his Going Solo book, and from discussions such as this one and this), Stacy Torres, and Elena Portacolone.

Here are some of questions and conclusions from the CCF report.

#1. Why are more older Americans on their own? It is not just about women outliving their husbands.

If the educated layperson knows one thing about the demographics of aging, it is that women live longer than men and so in later life, the women who have outlived their husbands are often living on their own. That’s true. And, of course, some Americans are on their own in later life because they never did marry.

There’s another factor, too, and this one was news to me. I have been hearing for a long time that the divorce rate has leveled off – it is no longer increasing. What I didn’t know was how different the numbers are by age. From the CCF report:

“While divorce rates have fallen for younger Americans over the past 30 years, the divorce rate for people over 65 has doubled since 1990.” [emphasis mine]

#2. But why are they living alone?

Just because you are widowed or divorced or have always been single does not mean that you are living on your own – in your own place, shared by no one else. Increasingly, though, more and more older Americans are living just that way.

Consider, for example, this striking reversal, as described in the CCF report:

“One hundred years ago, 70 percent of American widows and widowers moved in with their families. Today nearly the same proportion of widows and widowers live alone.”

Why the change? Because it is what older people want. Staying in their own places – now called “aging in place” – is their first choice of how to live. That is so even when their grown kids want to take them in, a willingness that has actually increased in the most recent generation.

#3. Money is the enabler and the disabler.

There is another crucial reason why more seniors are living on their own – they can afford to. The poverty rate among the elderly had fallen dramatically over time. Thank-you, Social Security. Thank-you, Medicare.

Of course, when it comes to economic resources, not all seniors are equal. Here are some groups especially likely to struggle financially in later life:

  1. Financially, aging renters have a harder time than aging homeowners. But even those who have fully paid for the homes that they own still have to pay property taxes and cover any maintenance and repair expenses that come up.
  2. Older women are more likely to be living in poverty than older men, 10.7 percent compared to 6.6 percent.
  3. Black and Hispanic women who live alone are particularly likely to be poor, 38 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

#4. Nora Ephron may have felt badly about her neck, but other body parts are not what we expect.

If you live alone and you have serious health problems, that will be difficult. No sugar coating. But the odds of that happening are actually dropping. Again, from the CCF report:

“Disability rate have been falling. And a 2009 Pew Research Center survey found that the percentage of young and middle-aged adult who expected to experience problems associated with old age such as memory loss, serious illness, or lack of sexual activity was much higher than the percentage of older adults who reported actually dealing with these issues.”

#5. In Singled Out, I made fun of the myth that “you will grow old alone and you will die in a room by yourself where no one will find you for weeks.” The CCF report agrees that many of these scare stories are myths.

I have often discussed the studies showing that people who are single are more often in touch with other people such as friends and neighbors, compared to those who are married. The CCF report underscores that the same is true if you look just at the older people who are living alone.

Women, especially, seem to do well on their own in later life:

“A 2007 study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council found that women over sixty who lived alone expressed more happiness with their lives than married women of the same age.”

Senior woman photo available from Shutterstock