This is not your grandparents’ generation. You are not going to find today’s seniors living out their lives in nursing homes, listless and bored. In fact, older Americans are among the most innovative when it comes to figuring out meaningful ways to live. They have a lot to share with people of all ages.
When I interviewed seniors all around the country about how they are living, they showed me all sorts of lifespaces. Their living arrangements ranged from those marked by plenty of togetherness (for example, living with family or friends under the same roof) to those featuring plenty of autonomy (such as living alone), with many intriguing in-between varieties (such as living in places of one’s own but within intentional communities, such as cohousing communities).
When I asked how they wanted to live, many said they were already living just the way they wanted to live, and others described a variety of innovative possibilities. Where I found lots of agreement was in how they did not want to live – in a nursing home. When I described my findings in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I knew just what the subtitle of my chapter on “Lifespaces for the New Old Age” would be: “Institutions Begone!”
A Pew Research report, based on a representative national sample of Americans 65 and older, shows the same thing. Nursing homes are not where it’s at. Even among the very oldest adults, those 85 and older, only 13% of women and 8% of men live in nursing homes. Among the younger seniors (ages 65 to 84), that number drops to just 2% for both men and women.
That’s by choice. When the Pew researchers asked adults 65 and older what they would prefer if they could no longer take care of themselves, 61% said they would still want to stay in their own home, and have someone else there to care for them. Another 8% said they would want to move in with family. Seventeen percent said they would want to move to a place where they could get help while maintaining much of their independence (in an assisted living facility), and only 4% said that they would want to move into a nursing home.
Living alone among older Americans has been increasing dramatically. In 1900, of those 65 and older, only 5% of men and 7% of women lived alone. By 1990, 15% of men and a whopping 38% of women lived alone. From 1990 to 2014, the increase in living alone among men continued, reaching 18%. For women, though, the high of 38% slipped to 32% in 2014. The researchers believed this occurred because “an increase in life expectancy, especially among men, has made it more likely that older women would be living with their spouses rather than as widows.”
Something else is increasing among older Americans: the percentage who are divorced. That’s more than doubled from 1990 to 2014. Add the divorced seniors to those who have always been single, and that’s a lot of people who are not living with a spouse. So for those who are not living alone, how are they living?
Among seniors who are not married, there has been a small increase in (1) living with their own children, for those who have children, and (2) living with family members other than their own children or living with people who are not family – think Golden Girls (or Guys).
Because national surveys such as the Pew studies typically look only at the broadest categories of living arrangements, they miss out on many of the innovative possibilities that seniors generate on their own. The seniors I interviewed for How We Live Now often wanted to preserve as much of their autonomy as possible while also having people they cared about close by. For example, two close friends, Tricia Hoffman and Anja Woltman, bought a duplex together. They each have a home of their own, with no adjoining walls (there is a garage in between). Yet when they need something, or just want some company, they have a friend just steps away. Some of the people I interviewed live in cohousing, where they have a place of their own as well as a whole community of friends all around them. Lucy Whitworth created her own community of women. Others, such as Marianne Kilkenny, have a suite of their own in a big Golden Girls type home. Even the seniors I interviewed who live in multigenerational households still have rooms of their own. Others live alone in the way we typically think of living alone (not in any deliberately created community), yet they, too, often have friends in the same town, and maybe family as well.
The Pew research also included a report on the well-being of seniors who live alone and with others. Maybe you already know that among older people who live alone, women often fare better than men. But there is one way that senior men do better than senior women. Can you guess what it is? I’ll tell you in my next post about the Pew research.
[Notes: (1) For collections of articles about all different aspects of single life, click here. (2) My most recent article in the Washington Post was “I’ve been single all my life. I rarely get lonely.“]
Gardening photo available from Shutterstock