What Needs to Change Now That So Many People Live Alone
With more solo dwellers, we need practical changes and new understandings.
Posted March 18, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Living alone is increasingly common, but many policies and social practices don't reflect that.
- There is a need for more housing, services, and goods tailored to people who live solo.
- People who live alone may have both vulnerabilities and strengths that others do not fully appreciate.
In the past half-century or so, solo living has become a demographic juggernaut. According to a United Nations report, around the world, one-person households are now just as common as households comprised of just a couple with no kids. And across Europe and North America, there are more households consisting of just one person than of couples and their children.
In too many ways, though, societies are experiencing “cultural lag”: they have not caught up with this dramatic evolution in how people are living. There are countless things that need to change. Here I will mention just a few, focusing on the United States.
Affordable Housing and Innovative Living Arrangements
We need more housing suitable for individuals living alone that is also affordable. That includes not just individual apartments and homes, but also arrangements such as cohousing neighborhoods, for people who want a sense of community while still having a place of their own.
Some trends seem headed in the wrong direction. Data just released by the Census Bureau show that, even before the pandemic started, the number of newly constructed rental units was heading downward. It is not because they cannot be filled—the same report indicates that within a year of going on the market, 94% of newly available apartments are rented.
Housing That Meets the Needs of More People
In North America, 26 percent of people who are 60 or older live alone. (It’s 27 percent just for the U.S.) That’s more than every other region of the world except Europe. Older people, as well as many people of all ages with disabilities, need housing that works for them, especially if they live alone. But only 10 percent of available housing in the U.S. includes features such as step-free entryways and grab bars in bathrooms.
People who live alone are often quite independent and resourceful. Still, there are certain tasks that are more easily accomplished with help, and other tasks that some solo dwellers just don’t want to do. Platforms such as TaskRabbit and Thumbtack provide some opportunities to find help, but those kinds of options need to be available in more places. And, of course, they need to be affordable.
Accessible Health Care
For some medical procedures, patients are required to have a ride and it can’t be from services such as taxis or Ubers. Sometimes patients need people to stay with them when they are hospitalized or help them when they get home. There are some services available to seniors, but people who live alone who are not seniors face more challenges. It shouldn’t be so difficult, or so expensive, to navigate the logistics of getting medical care.
Packaging of Products
Too often, items are sold in quantities that are wasteful to people living alone. In supermarkets, for example, perishable items are sometimes sold in amounts that solo dwellers could never consume before they go bad. It would help if food items were sold in smaller portions (without charging proportionately more) and if more items were offered in bulk so that shoppers could buy as much or as little as they wish.
Other kinds of items beyond food, such as housewares, are also sometimes sold in quantities of little interest to people who live alone. That should change, too.
People on their own often get charged more per person than couples or families. That’s true for insurance, memberships, cultural events, travel, and probably just about everything else you can think of. That’s a violation of the principle of Fairness for Single People, and it should end.
Hospitality and Travel Industries
More and more people are dining alone and traveling alone, and they are not just people who live alone. Restaurants need to make solo customers feel welcome. No more hiding them in the back, next to the swinging door of the kitchen. The travel industry can do more to accommodate solo travelers, for example, by offering more private rooms that are affordable, more options for finding suitable roommates for those who prefer sharing, and less piling on of excess fees.
A bit of enlightenment would also come in handy now and then, as Joan DelFattore pointed out when a tour guide told the couples on her trip that they should invite the single travelers to dine with them. Take a look at her discussion of the three things wrong with that well-intentioned gesture, if they are not already obvious to you.
Recognition of Vulnerabilities
Political leaders, across the political spectrum, are exquisitely sensitive to the needs and wishes of couples and families, especially “working families” and “hardworking families.” That gets taken to ridiculous extremes, as, for example, when a Senator tweeted that Daylight Saving Time should become permanent so as to “give families more sunlight to enjoy after work and school.” Because how could you possibly enjoy sunlight if you are single and live alone?
Headline writers for prestigious publications also use the same language of families that excludes single people. A New York Times article, for example, was introduced with the headline, “Which families will receive the most money from the stimulus bill?” But single people living alone also receive money from the bill.
That sort of language is alienating to the single people who are excluded by it. But more than hurt feelings are at stake. A focus on families can leave policymakers and everyone else oblivious to the real vulnerabilities of solo single people. For example, they can’t fall back on the income from a spouse if they lose their jobs. Surveys show that their needs are more likely to be ignored. During the pandemic, food insecurity has been a bigger problem for single people than for married people with or without children, yet single people have also been less likely to get help alleviating their hunger.
Food insecurity is just one example. In many other ways, too, single people who are not seniors, and who do not have kids, may well be one of the demographics least likely to get the help they need.
Recognition of Strengths
People who live alone have often been stereotyped as isolated and lonely. That pity party has only intensified during the pandemic. Of course, some people who live alone really are isolated and lonely and at risk for compromised physical and mental health. But studies supposedly documenting the risks of living alone often fall down in important ways.
For example, those studies don’t always take into account ways in which people who live alone and people who live with others may differ, when it is those differences, rather than the fact of living alone, that may account for the risks. In a big study that did control for those differences, the people who lived alone were actually less lonely than the people who lived with others. Even more importantly, I have never seen a study of the implications of living alone that included this critical question: Do you want to be living alone? What it means to live alone is going to be strikingly different for the person just widowed after a half-century of marriage and the person who loves living alone and hopes to be able to continue doing so until the day they die.
For plenty of people, getting to live alone is a triumph. It is what they always wanted and what they cherish once they attain it. They have their independence as well as their meaningful connections to other people. They are often resourceful and resilient. Their experiences show that the story of the isolated and lonely solo dweller is not the only story that needs to be told.
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