All around the world, more and more people are living alone. Included in that demographic are untold numbers who are living alone because they love living alone, have chosen that way of living, and are doing everything they can to be able to continue living alone for as long as they possibly can.
Most people who live alone are single. People who are Single at Heart—they live their best lives by living single—are even more likely to live alone than people who are not Single at Heart. But even among people who are coupled, some cherish solo living. The number of couples who are committed to each other and still want to live separately—they are “living apart together”—seems to be growing. That, too, is a testament to the powerful appeal of a place of one’s own.
I could tell you that people who love living alone value the freedom that comes with that way of living. If you live alone, then everything is under your control, from your sleep schedule to your dining and snacking habits, from the control of the thermostat to the control of the remote. You get to arrange and decorate the space as you like and use it as you like. All those things are true. And yet, the appeal of living alone can run much deeper than that. People feel more authentic when they are alone than when they are with other people. Those who are drawn to solo living for positive reasons are unlikely to feel lonely. They are not afraid of having time to themselves; they flourish in solitude.
When Other People Look at Older People Living Alone, They Often See More Risks Than Rewards
Living alone is not just for the young. Many middle-aged adults live alone, too. The rise of solo living is especially striking among older people, and that increase is likely to continue as more people are staying single for life, or not remarrying after their marriage ends.
For some, that is seen as a cause for concern. Take, for example, a popular article published recently in the New York Times: “As Gen X and Boomers Age, They Confront Living Alone.” The title of the article gives a big hint as to how living alone is going to be characterized: It is something to be “confronted.” No one who lives alone and loves it would say that they were “confronting” living alone. They might instead say that they were embracing it or luxuriating in it.
Although the two journalists who wrote the Times article noted that “many people in their 50s and 60s thrive living solo,” they then proclaimed that “research is unequivocal that people aging alone experience worse physical and mental health outcomes and shorter life spans.” Unequivocal? No, it is not.
Living Alone Is Not the Same as Being Socially Isolated or Feeling Lonely
I studied the article that was linked to that claim about the supposedly unequivocal research. It wasn’t about people who live alone, or even older people who live alone. It was about three things: social isolation, loneliness, and older people with cognitive impairments who live alone.
It is as if the journalists are telling us that the results of research on social isolation can stand in for the results of research on living alone, that the results of research on loneliness can also stand in for the results of research on living alone, and that cognitively impaired older people who live alone can stand in for all older people who live alone. None of these things are true.
Social isolation and loneliness really can pose risks to health and wellbeing. They need to be taken seriously. But many people who live alone are not socially isolated or lonely. In fact, people who live alone (across all ages) are typically more connected to other people, as sociologist Eric Klinenberg showed in Going Solo. Solo dwellers are often the life of the cities and towns where they live. And even people who really are, objectively, socially isolated are not always lonely, as a study of older people in rural Wales has shown.
It is possible to find studies showing that those who live alone are lonelier than people who live with others; the Times journalists linked to one of them. But a closer look can sometimes be quite revealing. For example, a study of more than 16,000 German adults found that, on the average, the people living alone were lonelier. However, the solo dwellers differed in important ways from those living with others, such as in their financial security. When the researchers controlled for those factors, so that the people living alone and the people living with others were similar financially and in other ways, too, their results were striking: The people living alone were less lonely.
The Most Important Factor in Whether People Flourish on Their Own Is Almost Always Ignored
People who are living alone because they want to live alone are very different from those who are living alone reluctantly. Yet nearly every study of the implications of living alone averages across both kinds of people. People like me—a 69-year-old who has lived alone for nearly 50 years and absolutely loves it—get averaged in with people like my mother, who went straight from living with her parents to living with my father until he died after 42 years of marriage, and was suddenly living alone for the first time in her life. When you hear a claim about the supposedly dire implications of living alone, keep that in mind.
Fearmongering claims about living alone insist that living alone undermines your health and shortens your life. The evidence is less than persuasive, as I’ve already noted. But even if those claims were true on the average, they are highly unlikely to be true for people who love living alone. As Kristin, a 58-year-old single woman, said, “For me, not living alone would shorten my life and damage my health.”
In one of the very rare studies in which people’s preferences were taken into account, more than 15,000 people in China, 65 and older, were asked how they wanted to live. Their preferences were compared to their actual living arrangements. The results were clear. People who were living the way they wanted to live, whether that was alone or with other people, were most likely to report that their health was good.
Among those who were especially likely to be living the way they wanted to be living were the elders who were not married. The married people, the researchers found, “tend to like living with their spouse only but end up living with children instead.”
The Supposed Risks of Living Alone Are Not Always Unique to Those Who Live Alone
All of the people living alone who were interviewed for the Times article seemed to like living alone. Yet their comfort with their living arrangements was always presented as a qualified comfort. For example, Jay said that solo living suits his creative interests and his independence, but we are told that “he worries about who will take care of him as he gets older.”
It is a legitimate concern, particularly in places such as the U.S. where the health care system seems built for people with spouses or adult children who are available to help them. But it is not just single people, or people living alone, who are at risk. Consider, for example, the fate of older married couples when one of them has dementia or some other debilitating disease. The other spouse no longer has their partner to care for them; instead, they are now in the caretaker role, and that care will never be reciprocated. The ill person is also at risk and not just because of their illness; sometimes when one person in a couple becomes seriously ill, the other flees.
There is evidence that when people marry, they often become more insular. Single people, in contrast, are more likely to maintain their ties with friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues. The people who got married and then marginalized many of the other people in their lives (and not all people who marry do this) may be most at risk in later life.
Giving Voice to the Fears, But Not the Joys
The last person we meet in the Times article is an older single Black woman who lives alone in Philadelphia and “is a fixture in her neighborhood, keeping watch over it.” She dreams of moving back to a small town in South Carolina where she grew up, but she cannot afford that. Her fate? She was shot twice in her legs when she was taking out the trash.
An article that begins with a misleading claim about the supposedly unequivocally grim implications of living alone ends with a story of an older woman living alone who got shot just outside her home. I don’t think the journalists were trying to write a fearmongering article. My guess is that they were genuinely trying to address the needs of a growing demographic. They viewed that demographic through the lens of conventional wisdom: older + living alone = isolated and lonely and doomed to a shorter, sicker life. The unconventional wisdom—that living alone can be joyful and life-enhancing, a way of flourishing—was missing from their narrative.
The article was very popular, shared over and over again. A brief summary published in The Week reiterated the dubious claim about “shorter life spans and diminished physical and mental health” of older people living alone. The scary, stigmatized perspective on living alone got perpetuated, and the people who love living alone, unreservedly, were left unacknowledged.
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