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Mr. J. Miles has lived his 52 years without marriage or children, which suits his creative ambitions as a videographer in Connecticut and, in his words, a combination of “independence and stubbornness.” But he worries about who will take care of him when he grows up.
Donna Selman, a 55-year-old college professor from Illinois, is grateful to be single, because her mother and aunts never had the financial and emotional independence she enjoys.
Mrs. Mary Felder, 65, has raised her grown children in her Philadelphia apartment building. There is enough room in her home for one person, but it is not cheap to maintain a century-old house.
Mrs. Felder, Mr. Miles and Professor Selman belong to one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the country: people 50 and older who live alone.
In 1960, only 13% of U.S. households consisted of a single person. But that figure has risen steadily, and today it is approaching 30%. For households headed by people 50 and older, the figure is 36%.
Nearly 26 million Americans age 50 and older now live alone, up from 15 million in 2000. Older people have always been more likely than the rest to live alone, and this age group – baby boomers and Generation X – now makes up a larger share of the older population than ever before in U.S. history.
His Life Story is Now Full of Lessons : Baby Boomers Living Alone
This trend is also driven by profound changes in attitudes toward gender and marriage. People over 50 are now more likely than previous generations to be divorced, separated, or never married.
Women in this category now have opportunities for career advancement, housing, and economic independence that were not available to previous generations of older women. More than 60% of seniors living alone are women.
“There is a kind of huge, explosive social and demographic shift going on,” says Professor Marcus Schafer, a Baylor University sociologist who studies the older population.
In interviews, many older people say they view their lives positively.
But while many people in their 50s and 60s feel good about living alone, research clearly shows that lonely people have poorer physical and mental health and shorter life expectancy.
And even with an active social and family life, people in this group tend to feel lonelier than those who live with others, according to Professor Schafer’s study.
In many ways, the nation’s housing stock is out of sync with these demographic changes. Many single adults live in homes with at least three bedrooms, according to census data, but face a shrinking housing stock due to a shortage of smaller homes in their cities and neighborhoods.
Compounding the problem of living alone is the fact that a growing proportion of seniors – about one in six Americans age 55 and older – are childless, raising questions about how seniors will be cared for in the coming decades.
“What will happen to this cohort?” asks Professor Schafer. “Will they continue to find other forms of support that compensate for living alone?”
Planning for the future
For many single adults, the pandemic has highlighted the challenges of aging.
Professor Selman, 55, was living in Terre Haute, Indiana, when Covid-19 broke out. Divorced for 17 years, she said she used the forced isolation to create new habits to escape loneliness and depression. She stopped drinking and began regularly calling a group of girlfriends.
In 2022, she took a new job and moved to Normal, Illinois, in part because she wanted to live in a state that better reflected her progressive politics.
She says she has met new friends at the farmers’ market and is happier than she was before the pandemic, although she sometimes wishes she had a romantic partner to ride motorcycles with or just help carry laundry up the stairs of her three-bedroom house.
She regularly travels 12 hours round trip to care for her parents near Detroit, an obligation that has convinced her to set aside her retirement fantasies of living on the beach and move someday closer to her daughter and grandson, who live in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I don’t want my daughter to worry about me,” she says.
Watching their own parents age seems to have had a profound effect on many members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, who say they doubt they can count on the same support as their parents: long marriages, pensions, houses that have sometimes skyrocketed in value.
When his mother passed away two years ago, Mr. Miles, a videographer, consoled himself by moving some of her furniture into his New Haven, Conn. home.
“It was a psychological homecoming,” he says, allowing him to feel grounded after decades of moving around the country and peripatetic careers, moving from the music business to teaching high school to producing films for nonprofit organizations and companies.
“I still feel indestructible, nonsense or no nonsense,” he says.
Caring for his divorced mother, however, made him think about his own future. She had a government pension and he has none. He also has no children.
“I can’t call my son,” he added, “like when I used to go to my mother to change light bulbs.”
According to him, all his options for maintaining independence are “terrible.” “I’m completely shocked by it.”
With room to spare
Living alone in homes with three or more bedrooms seems like a luxury, but experts say the trend is due not so much to personal choice as to the limited supply of housing in the country.
According to a Freddie Mac study, due to zoning and building restrictions, there is a shortage of homes under 1,400 square feet in many cities and towns across the country, which has led to an increase in the cost of smaller apartments.
Forty years ago, homes under 1,400 square feet accounted for about 40% of new home construction, and today only 7% of new construction is smaller, even as the number of single-person households has increased dramatically.
This has made it difficult for older Americans to reduce their expenses, as a large, aging home can often cost less than a single adult needs to create a new, smaller home and pay for living and health care expenses in retirement.
These difficulties are especially acute for many older black Americans, for whom the legacy of the Red Line and segregation has meant that homeownership has not brought as much wealth. The percentage of single people living in large homes is highest in many low-income and historically black neighborhoods. In these areas, many homes are owned by older single women.
One such woman is Mrs. Felder of Strawberry Mansion, a Philadelphia neighborhood. She and her ex-husband bought their two-story brick house in the mid-1990s for next to nothing after it was damaged in a fire.
After raising her three children, Ms. Felder worked in a variety of jobs, including retail, hotel cleaning and airport security. She retired in 2008 and has lived alone for more than a decade, although her sisters, children and grandchildren live nearby.
But in September it became more difficult to live alone.
As she and her neighbors picked up trash in a nearby alley, an unidentified masked man looked her in the eye and shot her twice in the legs.
Ms. Felder did not know who had shot her and was not arrested. She regained consciousness at her daughter’s house across town, which has a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, unlike her own home.
By the end of November she was feeling much better, physically, though not mentally, she said. But she didn’t spend the night in her own home. She’s still a little apprehensive.
“But I’m working on it,” she said. “I love my house.” NYTIMES
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