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Here's why fewer old women are living alone
A new Pew Research Center report finds that fewer elderly women are living alone because of a relatively new demographic trend that's good news for a segment of the population. And most seniors are not lonely, according to a different report. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Older women are much less likely to live alone than in decades past, largely because men are living longer. That's a big change when it comes to growing old in America, ending a trend that had found a larger share of elderly women living alone every decade from 1900 to 1990, according to a new Pew Research Center report.

A separate study by looked at the same age group, those over age 65, and found that, contrary to what many people believe, very few of those older Americans a group of more than 46 million people describe themselves as lonely or isolated, even if they do live alone.

Women still make up the largest share of the 12.1 million senior citizens who live alone, according to Pew, but in the past quarter-century, their ranks have dropped from 79 percent to 69 percent. The report said it's now "more likely that older women would be living with their spouses rather than as widows" until age 85.

And it is women ages 65 to 84 who have "almost exclusively driven the overall decline in the share of older Americans living alone," it said an 8 percent decline since 1990 to 30 percent in 2014. The number living with a spouse rose in that time from not quite a third to nearly half.

"We know marriage has a lot of benefits for people of all ages financial, happiness and well-being," said Kim Parker, director of Social Trends Research for Pew. "The increased life expectancy of men is allowing spouses to live together longer, improving their quality of life and financial well-being. It is a positive trend for women who now have a partner to live with to an older age."

The gains in life expectancy for men has outpaced gains for women, although women still account for 56 percent of the older American population. While most men ages 65 to 84 live with a spouse, the share has dropped since 1990, the living arrangements of elderly men becoming "more diverse" as more of them divorce and don't remarry, Pew research shows. Still, most men do remarry.

"One of the reasons for the gap between men and women in the share of elderly living alone, beyond life expectancy, is that men are more likely to remarry and they are more likely to marry younger women," said Renee Stepler, Pew research assistant and the report's author.

Not so lonely, which provides resources and information for those who are caregivers to the elderly, said folks should forget about stereotypes. Being old doesn't mean someone is automatically lonely. Its new survey found that just shy of six in 10 seniors say they never feel lonely or isolated and another 17 percent say they seldom do. Just 6 percent say they often feel lonely or isolated.

An overwhelming majority of those 65 and older 82 percent said they "connect" with family at least once a week and most of them do so daily. While the form the connection takes may vary, even simple contact like a phone call matters, according to CEO Andy Cohen.

"Any contact is beneficial even a quick email, a call, a card, a note on Facebook," said Cohen. "Just a little contact goes a long way. People think they need to go visit for it to matter, and sometimes that's hard to do, but there are other ways to reach out."

To emphasize the point, he talked about an older study on telemedicine that found when seniors are asked if they'd rather have an in-person doctor's office visit or four telemedicine calls a month, they preferred quantity. "People like the frequency of the contact," he noted.

Among those most likely to feel lonely, according to the survey: Democrats, compared to Republicans. High school graduates compared to college-educated people. Lower income vs. more wealthy folks, with $30,000 annual income the dividing line. City dwellers, compared to those who live in suburbs or rural settings. That finding surprised Cohen.

"Maybe those more in the country are less lonely because they were expecting to be more isolated," he said.

With a presidential campaign in full swing, Cohen said asking about party affiliation in this context was irresistible. The survey found that more Democrats say they're lonely (30 percent) than Republicans (19 percent) or independents (17 percent). Democrats were also less likely to own pets, which Cohen said some experts recommend to ward off isolation for senior citizens. There's no indication party affiliation shows cause, he added.

The Pew research also considered social connections, asking about hobbies and voluntarism. It found more older women living alone spend time on hobbies and interests as they age than do men, 65 percent compared to 49 percent. But those living alone were less likely overall to spend time on hobbies and interests as they age, compared to those who live with others, Stepler said.

Even though people are living together longer than in the past, the share of senior women younger than 85 who are unmarried and live with their children or others has also increased somewhat, the report said. Gray divorce the dissolution of marriages in late middle age and beyond is one reason for that. And despite gains in men's longevity, women over 85 tend to have outlived their spouses; solo living by women in that age group continues to increase gradually.

Parker believes people living alone generally have less social engagement than those who live with others. And older people who live alone are probably also less likely to engage in formerly loved hobbies and interests like traveling and hiking, she said.

Choosing where to live

Most (61 percent) of the 1,692 older Americans surveyed by Pew said if they could not live on their own independently, they'd rather bring someone into their home to care for them there. Seventeen percent said they would choose an assisted living option, while 8 percent would prefer to live in a relative's home.

The elderly men and women equally expressed a wish to "age in place," in their own homes. "We know from survey findings that older adults really want to live independently," said Parker.

That matches an ongoing trend in which fewer seniors, especially those 85 and older, live in nursing homes and other group quarters than in the past, said Stepler.'s Cohen noted, however, that although senior citizens may not want to live in group settings, there are pluses that many of them discover after making the move. "Communities are great for socialization and daily interaction. They may not think they want that, but people are generally happier than expected when they get there," he said. "Those who tour assisted living and long-term care facilities before the need arises often find beautiful places with fun activities and transportation" and are "much more likely to want to live there."

The Pew survey said while most older adults would like to be independent, those who live alone feel more cash-strapped than those who live with others. Only a third of seniors who live alone describe their financial circumstances as "comfortable," compared to nearly half of those who live with others.

"We have documented a lot of intergenerational transfers taking place, both of time and money," said Parker, who noted a "pretty significant share" of adults whose elderly parents provide some support, and of older parents whose adult children help with household chores, run errands and more.

"There are strong connections that way. We also know in a recession and post-recession era, there has been an increase in multigenerational families," she said. That creates a kin-woven safety net where families pool resources and where younger adults move back home with their parents, while middle-aged adults may help older parents financially.

"In a way, it's a bit of a movement back to where we were a couple of generations ago," Parker said.

Earlier Pew research cited in the new report said those who live alone say they have less time with family, compared to those who live with others. And men are not as satisfied with how many friends they have, compared to men who do not live alone. That is not true of women who live solo.