Why do people live alone after 75?

March 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

  “I wanted a job and I wanted to live alone,” she wrote.
“That made me a sexual suspect.”

Jenny Fields in J. Irving’s  The World According to Garp

The inroads to living alone vary. Some people live alone by choice, other by accident or even by rule. In certain cases living alone can be interpreted as an expression of deviant behavior, defined as behavior challenging implicit rules (Douglas and Waksler 1982). Living solo can be a way to break out of the societal expectation to marry, be monogamous, proliferate (Hertz 2006), or be constantly available to family members.  

Some just want to live alone. Cheryl, an 88-year-old woman who reads the Bible twice a day, has been living alone for 60 years. She decided not to get married and broke her engagement in proximity to the altar. Others prefer to live on their own after unpleasant or even abusive cohabitations with romantic partners, adult children, friends, or housemates. The need for quiet may become overpowering. “I really need silence, a lot” whispers in Laotian Li, an 80-year old immigrant, who is begged by her daughter to come back to live with her and her children. Some cannot accept the idea of monogamy, so living alone allows the entertainment of multiple partners.  Take Patricia, an 80-year old woman with long thin straight hair held together in a ponytail and darting eyes concealed by thick and wide lenses. Patricia divorced her second husband because she could not be bound to only monogamy with only the opposite sex, her sexual freedom being her defining trait.

 Others, the “unsuccessful daters” (Klinenberg 2008), longed to share their home with a romantic partner that never or seldom materialized. Some were successful but ended up with someone already married, like Paul, a 92-year old man who was even “incorporated” in his lover Eva’s circle by her husband. Others were successful for a while, some even got married, but then separated, willingly or not.  Others lived with a romantic partner, often married them, and the partner is now in a nursing home. In some cases, like Kazuko, an 82-year old woman, the husband passed away and the new lover ended up in a nursing home. In other cases, the life-time partner (or the last partner) passed away. 

 Finally, some people live in buildings with a low rent and with the condition that they live alone. In words I don’t understand without a Cantonese translator, barely making eye contact, Ming, an 84-year-old woman who lives in one-bedroom apartment sparsely furnished in a building for seniors in Chinatown explains how it works.

E: Would you like to have somebody living here with you?

M: There are rules here that you’re not allowed to have another person live in the same apartment. Even when my children come to visit me, they have to go down to the front desk and report themselves.

In other cases, like in some hotel rooms, space is so compressed that there is barely room for a single bed. When I visit Luke for instance, I use the only chair and he sits on the mattress of his unmade single bed. He sits so high that his polished black shoes hover in the air. The rest of the room is filled by a fan blowing hot air in my back, a TV surmounted by a DVD player, a small table, books on the floor, DVDs and CDs amassed over the ironing board, bags with clothes on the floor, the tower of a small fridge topped by a microwave topped by an electric grill, and an old rice cooker sitting on the floor beside. 

The number of older Americans living alone is increasing.

In 2006 more than a third of all Americans over 75, five million of them, lived on their own. Thanks to the ‘longevity revolution’ and to the desire to live at home rather than in an institution (AARP 2009;Butler 2008), this trend will increase (Kramarow 1995;Lutz 1995). San Francisco for instance is filled by one-head households: 41% of San Franciscans of any age live alone (the US average is 26%[1]) and 40% of San Franciscans over 75 are solo dwellers for a total of 21,272 San Franciscans (American Community Survey 2006). Another reason for this blog!


[1]This trend is amplified in other countries: Norway, Finland, and Denmark have around 40 percent of residents living alone (UNECE 2006), Japan records 30 percent of them (Ronald 2009).

§ 2 Responses to Why do people live alone after 75?

  • Lloyd Barde says:

    this is such relatable material, well conceived and thought out, and enjoyably insightful to read. Thanks Elana!

  • Kelly Clancy says:

    You write very beautifully on such poignant subject matter. These are all such fascinating stories, what a remarkable glimpse into lives that we would otherwise never see! When I lived in Boston I helped my elderly friend Sue with her charity, which basically utilized the talents of elderly women (mostly shut-ins and in nursing homes) to craft clothes and blankets for homeless children in the area. I thought it was a genius idea, because it gave these women–many of whom hadn’t left their homes in years and rarely had visitors–a deeper connection to a community they couldn’t interact with. Though the charity focused on homeless families I think the biggest benefactors were not the recipients of the organization but were in fact the crafters. Not only did it give them a sense of purpose, but Sue and other volunteers would visit them to bring them yarn and pick up finished items. Often this was the only interaction they had with anybody whatsoever. I loved going on these trips because these women always had such interesting stories, had so much to share. Humans are such brave and sweet and funny things. Reading these stories feels just like going on those trips, I honestly can’t wait to read more.

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