How great is it — really — living alone?

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If you’re living alone, or unwilling to re-marry, and in your 50s or older, you’re part of a trend in the U.S, reports The New York Times:

more adults are remaining single. The shift is changing the traditional portrait of older Americans: About a third of adults ages 46 through 64 were divorced, separated or had never been married in 2010, compared with 13 percent in 1970, according to an analysis of recently released census data conducted by demographers at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio.

Sociologists expect those numbers to rise sharply in coming decades as younger people, who have far lower rates of marriage than their elders, move into middle age.

Susan L. Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State, said the trend would transform the lives of many older people.

The elderly, who have traditionally relied on spouses for their care, will increasingly struggle to fend for themselves. And federal and local governments will have to shoulder much of the cost of their care. Unmarried baby boomers are five times more likely to live in poverty than their married counterparts, statistics show. They are also three times as likely to receive food stamps, public assistance or disability payments.

This is serious stuff, and an issue I’ve recently tasted firsthand.

I had major surgery in early February — enough of a financial challenge for someone self-employed with no paid sick or vacation days and a monthly four-figure overhead to meet. I came home from the hospital after three days, unable to bathe, dress, cook or clean the apartment. Simply trying to sweep our tiny kitchen floor, a week later, sent my pulse racing.

A physical therapist and nurse came to our apartment several times a week, hugely comforting to know I was healthy and recovering well. But the most minute of daily tasks were overwhelming for several weeks — without the physical help of my husband, and his infinite kindness and gentleness, it would have been impossible.

I lived alone for much of my life, ages 19 to 23 (when I lived with a boyfriend), ages 24 to 30 (when I settled down with my first husband), ages 37 to 43 (after my divorce, with no children.)  I generally enjoyed my privacy and solitude, had plenty of friends, work I liked, a small black terrier for company, and never worried much about it.

That all changed with my first orthopedic surgery, in January 2000, followed by another (both minor knee operations) within the year. For the first, I was single, and another single friend came all the way up from Manhattan in a blinding blizzard — even climbing our steep hill after the taxi gave up — to be with me. I got meals delivered by my church for a few days, then my father came from Canada to stay with me for a few more days.

I needed help for quite some time. Trying to simply buy groceries on crutches — which I’ve now done many times — is no picnic!

Being alone? Not so alluring, suddenly.

My mother, who lived on her own her entire life after her divorce from my father when she was 30, is now in a nursing home. It was clear to me on my last visit that she wasn’t going to be living alone much longer, for a variety of health-related reasons. Like me, she is — or always was — fiercely independent.

Unlike many women her age, though, she was fortunate enough to have the financial means to remain that way.

Old age is a rough ride for many of us, especially women who do not have pensions to rely on, or adequate savings or Social Security payments. Those of us who never had children, nor who have families that are either emotionally or physically close to us, willing to help us shower or buy our groceries or change our dressings, have to have very good friends, or someone we can rely on.

Who’s going to step in? Who’s going to pay for it?

The Times — somewhat confusingly — also recently published a piece that’s a paean to the glories of the single life — great if you’ve got lots of cash, consistently terrific health and/or a wide, deep network of supportive friends and family nearby. Few of us do!

A new book extols the virtues of the solo life, but also raises some of these questions.

What once looked like a seductive form of privacy and independence can quickly change form into something much darker and more frightening.

Do you live alone right now?

How’s it working for you?

14 thoughts on “How great is it — really — living alone?

  1. So true. I guess this raises the question of whether you choose to live for today or for tomorrow? Simliar thoughts weigh on me when I think about how my daughter will be able to handle caring for two old geezers without the support of any siblings, but we chose to have just one child because that’s how we are happiest now. And since it’s too late to go back on that decision, we just have to live with it and hope that we will not pose too much of a burden…I suppose this is why it’s so important to not live in isolation; we all need support networks at one time or another.

    1. I think planning financially to lessen her burden is helpful. I am my mother’s only child and she never re-married, but she was smart and careful with money so is solvent in her old age. Same with my father. That’s a relief as I struggle in a wildly changed industry in a recession.

  2. I have a husband (our second marriages; seven years). Both of us have had health problems. When I was undergoing chemotherapy, he helped me. When he had his heart attack, and has subsequently been unable to do much, I have been his support. We don’t have much money behind us, but we have each other.
    We have talked about if one of us ends up alone, and the prospect is scary. Between us, we have eight children, but they have their own lives (mostly far away) and their own children to care for. We just hope we can get through our older (we are both 63) and old age without having to call on them or anyone else. There are no guarantees.

    1. I plan to blog later on the topic of community…which is a vague notion for many of us. We were lucky to have so many friends through our church help with meals; for the daily hands-on care I needed, it would have to be a hired/paid home health aide.

      There is a woman on my floor who is 96, but has the means for a live-in nurse. It has been instructive and sad to see her decline physically so much, even in the past two years. And not everyone has the means, or the physical space, for someone to move in with them.

  3. Teresa Silverthorn

    Wow, that article you are referring to might just win “The Most Fear-Mongering Article Ever Written” Award.


    Taxes are higher for married people, than for single people. Maybe this article is simply trying to help the government glean more profit, by scaring people into marrying someone they don’t like, or love.

    Wait, that’s “tradition” isn’t it? At least for women.

    Ahh, the good ole’ days.

    Well, here’s your choice. Be a slave in a marriage that makes you miserable, or be free and take your chances. Doesn’t sound like freedom is being encouraged in that article.

    Everyone makes more money off the married people – than the single.

    So – scare them into getting married?


    1. Not at all the point I was making, actually.

      I liked living alone and, when I am 100% healthy, mobile and solvent, would enjoy it as well. I’m in a good marriage, and grateful for it — but anyone who reads the blog regularly is quite aware that I am hardly pro-marriage; I put my second one off for 12 years.

      If you have a solid network of friends who live close by, who are willing and able to help you in every way you need when you need them — great! Most people are too busy caring for their own families and/or working and/or commuting to do so, no matter how much you need their help.

      The question is not: marry or don’t marry. It is…when you need significant physical help (let alone financial), what is your back-up plan?

  4. goodoldgirl

    I lived alone throughout my twenties and again since my daughter started college ten years ago. I can’t imagine living with anyone again. It seems invasive. Even the couple of times my daughter has moved back in for a few months was, eventually, awkward for me. Maybe I like being alone too much.

    I am lucky in that I will have a pension and SS along with a tidy little nest egg to see me through retirement but I worry that at some point health issues will make living alone not an option. I’m fortunate, though, to have a sister, also divorced with one grown daughter, who is willing for us to move in together if either of us ever needs help. That’s a comfort but I hope neither of us ever needs that kind of support.

    We were raised by a strong, independent mom who has been divorced for more than 40 years. She taught us to rely on ourselves and each other and to help others as best we can. She’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s now and lives with my sister, the caretaker mentioned above. She’s no longer strong or independent and she deserved better than the life handed her. She’s never complained. She is my rock in a world of chaos.

  5. I’m 54, and have lived alone almost all of my adult life, I have no children. Recently I discovered that I have a health problem – easily taken care of, but not so easily detected. I figured it out myself, but if I’d been living with a partner I’m sure it would have been detected much sooner.
    My retirement plan? Work until I drop dead. No, really – I’ve made some bad financial decisions over the years.
    I’d love to have a partner/husband… hell, even roommate. But it’s not so easy to find someone that you’re compatible with, at least, it isn’t for me.
    Solution? Cultivate strong relationships with younger people, and hope that they will be willing to help out when the inevitable end-of-life crisis comes. Either that, or drive off a cliff. With the way our political system in the US is going, there will be no safety net.

    1. I agree with your idea…I have many younger friends (15 to 25 years younger) and hope to retain those for a while to come. I don’t do it strategically, but I think it’s wise.

  6. Really interesting post.

    In terms of domestic arrangements, my long-term partner and I are based in towns an hour apart, but I spend two days at his place then he spends two days at my place, which gives me 3 days to be alone and write, write, write, though, of course, writing happens every day, it’s just good to have a block of time where it’s the ONLY thing I do. I’m not good at concentrating, so I need peace and quiet. But I should admit to loving my own space, whilst knowing that there’s company coming just around the corner. So it’s a good balance.

    However, I have two elderly parents and they have health problems; luckily they have (a) three sons who are able to help them out and (b) some financial independence. I guess they’re also fortunate in that they live in a country like Australia where there’s a decent aged-care system (though it’s clunky and overly complex).

    But it has got me thinking: who will look after me when I’m older? I don’t have kids, so that rules that out. I love my privacy and independence so would hate to go to a home. I’m lucky that I have a good network of friends, and I do have two nephews and a niece – so perhaps I’ll have they rely on these guys. You’re right that there comes a time when all this becomes important to think about!

    1. I like your arrangement! Seems like the best of both worlds — intimacy and privacy.

      But having seen my mother deteriorate VERY fast — from being totally on her own in July 2010 to four months in the hospital (and 3 surgeries, all unforseeen) to March 2011…when she had to move into a nursing home, an option she told me that summer filled her with horror. But between early dementia, a colostomy and COPD…independent life in a small one-bedroom apartment with a steep staircase? No.

      It has forced Jose and I to start shopping for long-term care insurance. Such fun.

      I live in a 100-apt. building, mostly inhabited by people in their 70-s to 90s; many leave for nursing homes, or the funeral home. So, for better or worse, I see firsthand daily what later old age looks like, good and less good. I sure didn’t choose an old-age home for a home, but it’s fine. It’s an education. With no kids, life looks quite a bit more complex. I have a half-sibling 10 years younger, but he lives in Canada and I have zero expectation that he would step up for me — and my husband’s family is, like mine, neither physically or emotionally close.

  7. Anna

    You have your health, you support yourself, why bother relationships good one day and sour the next, I chose being single again after all things considered; nobody’s business what I do, don’t have guilt or regrets, I have God and my faith in Him, my gut feeling to dictate what’s good and that’s good enough for me, don’t need listen to no one but what I feel

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