Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

July 17,  2006  



Home alone: more seniors living solo

By Thomas F. Coleman

Household demographics in the United States have shifted dramatically over the past few decades.  One person households, for example, have jumped from 13 percent of all households in 1960 to 27 percent in 2004.

Nearly 30 million Americans now live alone.  There are currently more solo-single households in the United States than there are households containing married couples with children.

About one-third of these solo singles are men and women 65 years of age and older.  The most recent annual data from the Census Bureau reports that 7.5 million senior women and 2.6 million senior men live alone.

Many seniors love living alone.  Others live alone because they have not found other suitable options.  In either event, seniors living on their own face some significant challenges.

For those who are new to the solo lifestyle, due to divorce or death of a spouse, the first challenge may be psychological.  An adjustment in attitude about living alone may help.

Older women who find themselves going it alone might consider purchasing a book on the subject, such as "A Woman's Guide to Living Alone" by Pamela Stone.  Or solo singles of either gender might consider reading "Living Alone Creatively" by Stanley E. Ely.

On a more practical and physical level, climate control is a significant issue for many solo seniors, especially those living in areas of the nation which are subject to extreme heat in the summer or frigid temperatures in the winter. 

Transportation is a major problem for those without cars or who no longer have a driver's license.  This is especially true in suburban or rural areas with inadequate public transportation systems.

Security and safety are primary concerns for seniors who live alone.  People who have never married or who are divorced or widowed are more than twice as likely to be victims of a robbery than those who are married.

Many solo seniors suffer from poor nutrition.  This can contribute to or aggravate serious health issues.  New research from Denmark reports that older people who live alone are twice as likely to suffer serious heart disease than those who live with a partner.

The cost of solo living hits many seniors quite hard in the pocketbook, especially those who are living on fixed incomes.  The cost of grocery shopping, for example, is often higher per person for a solo single than a multi-person household.  Food that is packaged in large volumes or bulk quantities can be significantly less expensive per ounce or per pound than those purchased in smaller packages.

So what's a solo senior to do?  Plan, share, and cooperate -- that's what.

Transportation problems can be minimized by planning trips to the store or to the doctor well in advance.  Tell your neighbors or fellow church members about your transportation needs for the coming month.  Ride sharing or car pooling opportunities may materialize if you speak up about your needs and offer to help pay for gas.

If you have errands to do that are within walking distance, consider inviting a friend or neighbor to walk with you.  There is security in numbers.  You are less likely to be assaulted if you have a companion with you. 

Contact your local utility companies for suggestions on how you can protect yourself from extreme temperatures.  Perhaps they have a lower rate for low-income seniors.  Or maybe they can arrange for you to pay a fixed amount each month in order to avoid a surge in utility costs in the summer and winter.

Round up a few friends or neighbors for a shopping spree at Costco or Sam's Club.  You can buy larger quantities to get the discounted price and then divide the produce or other food items into smaller quantities for each to take home.  Cooperative buying can save you a bundle of money in the long run.

Once you have the food on your shelf at home, then comes the challenge of how to cook healthy meals for one.  Perhaps a little reading may give you some helpful hints on this score.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has released a healthy-cooking brochure for singles.  "Cooking Solo: Homemade for Health." The book focuses on planning, preparing and enjoying healthy meals at home instead of haphazardly grabbing food that's often unhealthy on the go. (To order a free copy of Cooking Solo, call AICR at: 800-843-8114, ext. 111.)

According to Melanie Polk, a nutrition advisor to AICR, "When you change your eating habits, you also often will find that you're going to start taking off weight, slowly and consistently. Your clothes will feel better. You'll feel better. You'll look better."

Based on an analysis of Census data and trends, BusinessWeek Magazine projects that by 2010 nearly 30 percent of American households will be inhabited by someone who lives alone.  By then, married couples with kids will drop to 20 percent. 

This shift in lifestyles and household arrangements, including the boom in solo senior living, is bound to have an effect on American society -- socially, economically, and politically.

Perhaps some of the current challenges faced by solo seniors will become less daunting as government agencies and private businesses pay more attention to those who are home alone.

Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.