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The Secrets of Older Americans Living Alone

Posted: 06/18/2012 7:00 pm

Written by Elena Portacolone

Lawrence, an 89-year old San Franciscan who spends most of his time by himself, proclaims from his dusty living room crammed with vinyl records: "that's one thing I can do, is just live alone, and that's what I do." This year, the "doing" of living alone is finally hitting the headlines with the launch of sociologist Eric Klinenberg's superb new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

A few weeks after the launch, Time magazine proclaims that living solo is the first of the "ten ideas that are changing life." For Klinenberg, living alone is a platform for self-realization, freedom and social engagement. He adds that living alone is easier with robust welfare policies and among younger generations. This important point often gets lost in the enthusiasm around living alone that followed the launch of his book.

However, to truly celebrate the adventure of going solo, we have to come to terms with and overcome the struggles of living alone in older age. As Klinenberg warns in the first pages of Going Solo, for older adults like Lawrence, "the ordinary challenges of growing old ...can become extraordinary hardships for someone who spends most of the time alone" (p.17). The weight of the struggle varies by country. Living alone in countries with very limited and scattered public services such as the United States is not easy.

The obstacles of aging alone in the U.S. emerged in my two-year ethnography of living alone in older age in the U.S.. For my dissertation project, I recently spent time with 47 San Franciscans older than 75 and living alone.

Aging alone is not for sissies. The lack of social policies supporting the condition of living alone in older age makes the condition unsustainable. Yes, living alone is the "new norm." However, this new norm is not yet supported by social policies that are more designed around the traditional family and around the acute model of health care. Policy makers have now the task to incorporate policies that support older Americans to thrive as they live alone.

Today, the absence of coverage of long-term care through Medicare, the limited number of public social workers and case managers and the shortage of affordable housing hinder one's ability to live alone. If we add ageism, segregation by age and the prevailing ideology that promotes self-reliance rather than interdependence, we start having an idea of how tough the "social experiment" of living solo gets the last years of our life. The recent report "Aging Alone in America" by Eric Klinenberg, Stacy Torres and me goes into more detail on the way public policies are not yet ready to accommodate the increasing number of older solo dwellers.

My hope is that this wave of awareness around living alone gathers enough momentum to make more of us think on how to accommodate the needs of living alone of our older generations. Please consider that older solo dwellers often silently and covertly struggle to "make it alone." They prefer to keep a low profile in order not to be labeled a burden, a nuisance or even worst, a risk to society, a label that will send them straight away in dreaded nursing home. It is not an accident that the majority of residents in nursing homes lived alone and that many of my informants said that they would die rather than moving there. Take Julia, an 83-year old artist, who has been so horrified by some visits to a nursing home to say:

J: I would find a way to check out on my own if I thought that [going into a nursing home] was going to happen. I can't shoot myself because I made out my trust, and I'm willing my body to a research institution. I'm willing my head to the dental school, and if you shoot yourself you're going to ruin your skull, so it wouldn't be any good to them.

E: Yes. So this is a problem.

J: Yeah, you'd have to take a pill or something else so that you don't get mutilated. But that's a long time away, and I'm not interested in that now. It's kind of scary.

Elena Portacolone is assistant adjunct professor at the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF). An affiliate of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at UC Berkeley, Portacolone has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Bay Area of San Francisco on adults living alone, the Gray Panthers, and deinstitutionalization. She holds a BA in Political Sciences from Turin University (Italy), Masters in Business Administration and Public Health from UC Berkeley, and a PhD in Sociology from UCSF.

For her dissertation project entitled "Precariousness among older adults living alone in San Francisco: an ethnography," Elena Portacolone delivered food as Meals on Wheels volunteer and spent time with 47 San Franciscans over 75 living alone. Her research has been featured in the websites of Fox News, Reuters, San Francisco Examiner and USA Today as well as in Ageing and Society. She writes a blog on living alone and aging.

 

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