In my last post, I described the results of the latest Pew research report on the ways that older Americans are currently living. I was describing their choices to live alone or with others (as reported by Pew) and the many innovative ways they are finding to balance their desire for autonomy with their wish to have others they care about nearby (from my own research as described in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century).
The Pew report also included findings about the well-being of seniors who live alone compared to those who live with others. They reported on the people in their lives, the time they spend with them, and the time they spend on hobbies and volunteering.
When asking people about their contact with other people, I think it is important to find out how much contact they actually want. Because if people in one group see others less often than people in another group do, maybe it is because the people in the first group want it that way.
There was only one question the Pew researchers asked that included an assessment of how the seniors felt about their interpersonal connections. It was the one about friends. Participants were asked how satisfied they were with the number of friends they had. The report showed the results for those who said they were “very satisfied.”
You know how these stories go. Journalists and pundits seem to love to write about those poor lonely old people. Didn’t work out that way! Or, it didn’t for the women. Among women 65 and older who were living alone, 71% said they were very satisfied with the number of friends they have; for women living with others, that number was 67%.
Older men living alone had a harder time: 48% of them said they were satisfied with the number of friends they had, compared to 62% of men living with others.
Seniors living alone spend less time with family and see their grandchildren less often than seniors living with other people. But the participants were not asked how satisfied they were with the time they spend with family or specifically with grandchildren, so we don’t know whether either group was getting what they wanted.
Ideally, one of the perks of growing older should be the availability of more time for pursuing your interests and hobbies. Pew participants were asked if they were spending more time on such things as they age. Among older women living alone, 65% said yes, compared to 63% of women living with others. Again, the older women living alone are doing even better than the older women living with others – just as they were doing better in their satisfaction with the number of friends they had (though the differences are probably not statistically significant).
The older men, though, were spending far less time pursuing their interests if they lived alone (49%) than if they lived with others (73%). Both the men and women living alone did less volunteering than those who lived with others – a finding that seems inconsistent with the usual results from people across the entire adult lifespan, showing that it is single people who are typically more connected with their neighbors and involved in their cities and towns than are married people.
So in all of these different ways, older women living alone do better than older men living alone, and sometimes they even do better than older women living with others. But I promised in the title of this article that there is one way in which men living alone do better than women living alone. Did you guess what it is?
It is in their financial well-being. Both men and women living alone are far more likely to feel financially strapped than those living with others. Perhaps this should not be surprising since they have just one set of financial resources to draw from (whether salary if they are still working, or pension or Social Security or other assets) and their one set of resources has to cover all their bills. What’s more, those who have been single all their lives have been disadvantaged financially in many deeply consequential ways. But the financial challenges are even worse for older women who are living alone:
“19% of older women who lived alone were in poverty in 2014, versus 15% of comparable men. Among older Americans who lived alone, 1.6 million women lived in poverty compared with 600,000 men. However, older women in any living arrangement are more likely to be impoverished than older men.”
Although in ways other than financial ones, some older men who live alone seem to be struggling, my guess is that future generations will do a lot better. As I explained previously (here and here), as single men (and women) spend more time single and more time living alone, they learn the skills they need to do so successfully. When or if they are on their own in later life, it will be a matter of “been there, done that” – not such a big deal.
[Note: For collections of articles about all different aspects of single life, click here.]
Man with tablet photo available from Shutterstock