The archetype of the old widow living alone is embedded in cultures across the world -- but a new study shows that in the U.S., it’s becoming a lot less common. After rising for most of the twentieth century, the percentage of older adults who live alone has fallen in recent years, a drop driven mostly by a decline in solo living among women aged 65 to 84, says a new study by the Pew Research Center.
The downturn began fifteen years ago. In 1990, 38 percent of women 65 and older lived alone, while only 15 percent of their male counterparts did. In 2014, the women’s share fell to 32 percent, while the percentage for men had risen to 18. For men and women combined, the percentage dropped from 29 to 26.
The change is due in part to an increase in life expectancy, especially among men. As men live longer, fewer women are left without a partner.
At the same time, more men are left alone – a state that is harder on men than on women. the study found. Older women living alone are more connected with social networks and more satisfied with their social lives than men. They spend more time on hobbies and are less likely to remarry or even to want to remarry after being divorced or widowed.
“It’s the traditional story of the women creating these networks for the both of them,” said Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist with NORC, University of Chicago, who studies loneliness. “The question arises as to whether older men need something different out of their friendships. These men are of a cohort where career has been very important to their identity.” Once they retire and are living alone, it can be harder for men to create and maintain non-work-related friendships.
Most older Americans say they would prefer to be cared for at home as they age; and compared to 1990, more now live in assisted living facilities or with their children. That uptick was particularly pronounced among women -- nearly a quarter of unmarried women 85 and older lived with their children, up from 16 percent in 1990 -- and also accounted for the change in solo living rates.
Both men and women living alone reported worse financial situations and less frequent contact with family than those living with other people. Among those with grandchildren, only 43 percent of those living alone said they kept in weekly touch with them, compared to 60 percent of those living with others.
Overall, the decline in older people living on their own is good news, said Jon Pynoos, professor of gerontology at USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “The upside of living alone is you’re sort of your own boss,” he said.
But older men have higher suicide rates than others, he said, and those living alone risk isolation. “The downside is it can be lonely, it can be very much more expensive...and you can be isolated. It’s not for everybody.”