Teodora Spanjers, 80, (L) poses with Ginny Bravos, 86, in a swimming pool locker room in Sun City, Arizona. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Coronavirus

    The Post-Pandemic Urban Future Is Already Here

    The coronavirus crisis stands to dramatically reshape cities around the world. But the biggest revolutions in urban space may have begun before the pandemic.

  2. photo: South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.
    Coronavirus

    Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

    Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  

  3. A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a boarded up building in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Governors from coast to coast Friday told Americans not to leave home except for dire circumstances and ordered nonessential business to shut their doors.
    Equity

    The Geography of Coronavirus

    What do we know so far about the types of places that are more susceptible to the spread of Covid-19? In the U.S., density is just the beginning of the story.

  4. Perspective

    Coronavirus Reveals Transit’s True Mission

    Now more than ever, public transportation is not just about ridership. Buses, trains, and subways make urban civilization possible.

  5. Coronavirus

    The Coronavirus Class Divide in Cities

    Places like New York, Miami and Las Vegas have a higher share of the workforce in jobs with close proximity to others, putting them at greater Covid-19 risk.

×