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Older People Living Alone

by Daniel B. Kaplan, PhD, MSW, Barbara J. Berkman, DSW, PhD

In the United States, nearly 30% of the 40 million older people who live in the community live alone. About half of the oldest old (people who are 85 years or older) who live in the community live alone. About four fifths of older people living alone are women. Men are more likely to die before their wives, and widowed or divorced men are more likely to remarry than are widowed or divorced women.

Living alone can present many challenges:

  • People who live alone are more likely to be poor, and poverty is increasingly more likely the longer they live alone.

  • Many older people who live alone say they feel lonely and isolated.

  • Because eating is a social activity for most people, some older people who live alone do not prepare full, balanced meals. Thus, undernutrition becomes a concern.

  • Among people with health problems or difficulty seeing or hearing, it is all too easy for new or worsening symptoms of disease to go unnoticed.

  • Many older people who live alone have problems following directions for prescribed treatments.

Despite these challenges and problems, most older people who live alone express a keen desire to maintain their independence. Many fear being overly dependent on others and wish to continue to live alone despite the challenges they face. Engaging in regular physical and mental activities and staying connected with others help older people who are living alone maintain their independence.

People returning home from a hospital stay, particularly after surgery, may benefit from having a discussion with a social worker or health care practitioner about any extra services that will be needed. Such services, which may include home health aides or visiting nurses, can help ensure that people resume living independently.

Staying connected

Studies have shown that older people who lack social interaction tend to have more health problems then those who are not socially isolated. Older people who live alone may need to make an effort to avoid social isolation.

Many older people find that volunteering is a good way to use skills and life experiences to contribute to society. Hundreds of organizations in the United States welcome the skills of older adults. An example is Senior Corps, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Senior Corps programs include the Foster Grandparent Program, the Senior Companion Program, and RSVP (see Senior Corpssee ).

Some older people also find taking classes a good way to keep their minds active and to connect with others in their communities. Many communities, school districts, and colleges offer continuing education classes for all people and even some designed with older adults in mind.

Hobbies and social groups may also help older people maintain social connections and physical fitness. Some older people rediscover a hobby that was put aside when free time was more occupied with work and family concerns. Other people may want to explore new interests.