Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Shifts in life expectancies and social norms are reversing a 20th century trend.
The aging widow, alone in her home, has been a cultural trope for centuries. But such women are becoming less common in the U.S., as social expectations, economic realities and life expectancies shift.
A new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data finds that the share of older adults (ages 65 and up) living alone is falling. The change has been most dramatic among women aged 65 to 84: 30 percent lived alone in 2014, compared to 38 percent in 1990. The share of older men living alone has actually increased slightly: In 2014, 18 percent lived alone, up from 15 percent in 1990.
These shifts come after nearly a century in which the share of older people living on their own rose steadily, from 6 percent in 1900 to 29 percent in 1990. Improvements in health, longevity, and economic security, thanks to programs like Social Security and Medicare, largely drove this increase.
Now, thanks to an uptick in life expectancy, particularly among men, women between the ages of 65 and 84 are increasingly likely to live with their spouse. Older, unmarried women are also more likely to live with their children. And as a growing share of older men are living longer, living arrangements for them are becoming more diverse. Here’s a chart that shows how, for both genders, home lives are changing among the oldest Americans:
Fewer older Americans living alone seems to be a positive shift, because there are drawbacks to the solo life. In a Pew survey conducted in 2014, only 33 percent of older adults living alone said they live comfortably when asked about their finances, compared to 49 percent of those who lived with others. Those findings reflect Census data that shows older Americans who live on their own are about three times as likely as those who don’t to live in poverty.
Living alone can also lead to feelings of social isolation. A Pew survey conducted in 2009 found that older adults living alone were less likely than those who lived with others to say that they see their families more often as they’ve aged. They were also less likely to do volunteer work and to travel for pleasure. Older men living solo (though not women) were also less satisfied with the number of friends they had.
How do fewer older Americans living on their own fit into other broad shifts in living arrangements? For one, the increase in older unmarried adults living with their children is part of a rise in multi-generational households. Young adults living with their parents, largely for economic reasons, are the most significant driver of that trend. For better or for worse, more Americans are living under fewer roofs.