Huffpost Fifty

Aging In Place Has Its Benefits, Risks

Posted: Updated:
More boomers are aging alone, but may meet financial difficulties down the road.
More boomers are aging alone, but may meet financial difficulties down the road.

When mom or dad has a harder time getting around their homes, one begins to make plans: “Should she move in with us? Maybe we should look into nursing homes.”

But more older Americans want to live alone –- or “age in place” as experts call it –- than ever before, for demographic, personal and financial reasons that have little to do with quirky, Secret Single Behavior, according to a new paper.

Compared to the 10 percent of aging boomers who lived alone in the 1950s, today a third of older Americans are living by themselves, according to “Aging Alone in America” written by Eric Klinenberg, a professor at New York University.

“More people are aging alone because they have the financial resources to do it,” Klinenberg said, who explores the appeal of living alone in his book. Medical advancements and healthier lifestyles have led to a steady decrease in disability rates. This in turn has kept older boomers on the job longer, lowering poverty rates that forced many to move in with their kids decades ago (35 percent in the 1950s, compared to a fluctuating 10 to 12.5 percent since the 1980s).

Aging in place is more common for older boomers. Divorce rates have doubled for the over 65 set since 1990, the paper reports. According to a Bowling Green State University study, a third of single boomers have never been married. Only 10 percent are alone due to a spouse’s death.

The ability to live alone is a way for older boomers to maintain their independence and identity, according to the paper. It also doesn’t necessarily mean being lonesome. “Most older singletons are quite socially active,” Klinenberg said. “On average they spend more time with friends and neighbors than older people who are married.” Being social means being active, which is something aging boomers can do “because they are so healthy and, well, young.”

Yet this trend also has a dark side, due to the bumped up projected end of Social Security and Medicare, Klinenberg told Huff/Post50. “If we make dramatic cutbacks to [these entitlement programs], the number of Americans who can afford domestic independence will go down as well,” he said. This reversal in fortune may be accelerated by increased bankruptcies caused by credit card debt and the impending student loan debt crisis.

In addition, there are logistical issues. “We don’t have the right kind of housing for older singletons,” Klinenberg said. “They want private apartments but also proximity to services, companionship, and support. The most affluent older Americans can get all of this in assisted living facilities, but for most families they are unaffordable.” (Though as Huff/Post50 recently reported, social entrepreneurs such as Tim Carpenter are trying to change that with affordable senior housing that mixes in community, the arts and wellness.)

Klinenberg is concerned about the lack of a policy fix for the looming Medicare and Social Security cut offs, and with the skyrocketing growth of the demographic: By 2020 there will be more Americans over 65 than under 15; in 2030, the number of people over 65 will have doubled, and the number of people over 80 nearly tripled. “This could mean that more older people have to move in with their children or other family members, just as older Americans did before the New Deal,” Klinenberg warned.

Filed by Anthonia Akitunde