“Living alone has been defined as pathological by sociologists, associating it with social isolation, psychiatric disorder and antisocial behaviour (I have the references if anyone wants evidence). But a high proportion of older people live alone and the numbers are growing – does this mean we have looming social problems of epic proportions?” – Judith Davey 26/9/14
In the 21st century, many people live alone – in their 20s, asserting independence from their parents; in middle-age, after divorce or the breakdown n of relationships; in their older years after the death of their partners or because they have never married. People choose to live alone by choice, if they are physically and financially able to, sometimes even when they have close emotional ties with a partner – “living alone together”. Living alone can be a sign of individualism, independence, and/or wealth. It has become a viable lifestyle.
In fact one-person households are the fastest-growing type of household, mainly due to growing numbers of older people. Nearly half – 44% – of people aged 65 plus live alone and this proportion is growing. Of this group 69% are women and 31% men. This comes about because most older women can expect to outlive their husbands and because women still tend to marry or partner with older men. Of people 85 plus who live alone 74% are women and only 26% men. New Zealand is not alone in these patterns; in many European countries one in every three older people lives alone.
Alone and lonely?
Living alone for most people means being at home without anyone else. But there is a distinction between living alone physically and living alone socially. We are all familiar with people who are living alone (physically) but have many social contacts and are not lonely. We are also familiar with people who live with others, but are socially alone or lonely. Recent research among minority ethnic communities, such as Indians, Koreans and Pacific Islanders, has shown that social exclusion can still be a problem for older people living in extended families.
A strict definition of living alone would exclude having other living things around such as pets, or even robots, which provide companionship or help. An 84 year-old man in the Waikato research, who considered he was living alone, introduced the interviewer to his very large grey teddy bear who sat beside him every night to watch television. And a rest home resident, surrounded by her friends playing bowls, considered she was living alone, because when she walked into her room “there was no-one there.”
Why do older people live alone?
Living alone comes about through several different pathways. People may never have had a live-in spouse or partner; they may have had one but now they are gone, through dissolution of marriage,
separation or death. Some older people live with others, but have separate activities and identities (flatting). These situations may have come about by choice, but some are unanticipated.
When older people in the research were asked why they continued to live alone, the predominant responses were “freedom, choice and control and independence”. One person summed it up – “(living alone) allows us to do what we want, when we want, and how we want”. This does not sounds like a pathological state!
Some policies recognise the higher costs of living alone. New Zealand Superannuation is paid at a ‘married rate’ to each of the spouses (or de facto partners), while the living alone payment is higher than half the married rate. This financial support makes it easier to live alone.
Disadvantages of living alone
Living alone is harder when worsening health and disabilities mean that older people need help from others. Reduced mobility, such as when they stop driving, may make it harder for them to get out, as will cognitive impairment. This makes older people dependent on family and friends, formal and informal services, reducing the choice and control they enjoyed when living alone, as well as possibly leading to isolation and loneliness. A less obvious disadvantage is having the sole responsibility and burden of decision-making. People in the research said they had no-one to talk to face-to-face, especially when they had to make critical decisions. They also commented on people taking advantage of older people living alone – financial abuse by their family, tradesmen, mail and phone scams, requests for donations.
The advantages and disadvantages of living alone were very obvious to the participants in this study, but most had developed strategies for dealing with them, which I will talk about in my next blog post.