About Elena Portacolone…

Time for a blog on living alone and aging.
More of us live alone, like me. And more older adults live alone by choice or by accident. This blog is devoted to them

 I am  an assistant professor at the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF) and an affiliate to the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at UC Berkeley. Born in Italy and a U.S. permanent resident, I hold a BA in Political Sciences from Turin University (Italy), Masters in Business Administration and Public Health from UC Berkeley, and a PhD in Sociology from UCSF. For my dissertation entitled Precariousness among older adults living alone in San Francisco: An ethnography, I delivered food as Meals on Wheels volunteer and spent time with 47 San Franciscans over 75 living alone.  I recently started an investigation on older adults living alone with cognitive impairment, as well as on isolated solo dwellers living in areas with high crime in the Bay Area of San Francisco. To know more about my work, check this link, http://scienceofcaring.ucsf.edu/health-public/how-we-age-elena-portacolone-looks-older-adults-living-alone.

Why am I so interested in older adults living alone?

The highs and lows of living alone for 17 years have shaped me in unimaginable ways. I enjoyed drifting away from loved ones, days and weeks passing by without seeing anyone. In 2001 I spent the entire winter holidays without seeing a soul in my apartment in London, celebrating Christmas and New Year alone, something very unusual for a 32-year old Italian with an active social network. My Godmother Ninni (the woman with me in the picture below) had a similar inclination.  She found refuge in her own apartment overlooking the Mediterranean. Into her 80s, she doggedly refused home care aides until a stroke immobilized the left part of her body and forced her to move into a nursing home, where she died.

Crises baffled me. The unexpected loss of a job triggered anxiety attacks at the crack of dawn when I raked my brain trying to figure out how to pay rent and bills on time. Another time, because I had a deep cut on the left hand that would have required some stitches (I avoided the hospital like the plague), I let dirty dishes pile up in the sink.  Taking a shower or boiling an egg became a major endeavor. My acrobatics reminded me of one of the several accidents my grandmother had in her 80s when living alone in Italy. After loosing balance after dinner, she lay on the kitchen floor for hours, terrified of spending the night glued to the cold tiles by her weight. Her pale blue eyes lit up when she told me that the invocations to her Saints miraculously propelled her to reach the phone string dangling from the table above her nose. Her son, my father (the man in the old picture below), did not have the same luck. In 1991 an asthma attack found him unprepared and alone in the middle of the night in a London apartment he occupied three nights a week during an overseas assignment. Alerted by his absence in the morning, his colleagues were the first to discover his death.

Starting in 2003, as a graduate student in public health and business administration, my study of alternatives to nursing home allowed me to get to know older adults who attended adult day centers, but mostly lived alone too. Their stories gradually shifted my attention from the best practices in long term care to the universe of living alone in older age.  The stories I heard were full of struggles with reverse mortgages, credit card debts, isolation, depression, and lack of energy. As soon as I started a PhD in Sociology at UCSF I learned about the rising demographic trend of solo living and investigated the literature on the hardships of living alone in older age in the United States. I realized that Ninni’s and my grandmother’s experience, as well as my first informants’ stories were just a tip of the iceberg of a much wider trend. I wanted to expand the general body of knowledge about living alone in older age. This blog is my way to share news and thoughts about the universe of living alone in older age, and to gather ideas for my research.

      Thank you Susan Merrell for the picture of me and Lionel Sandimar in his hotel room in the Tenderloin.

      Thank you my beloved  friend Andrea Young (andreayoungarts.com ) for my website elenaportacolone.com and for this blog.  GRAZIE!


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