By Lindsay Hutter
The United States has the greatest number of seniors – those aged 60 and older – living alone, or “solo aging,” than in any other area of the world, according to a Pew Research Center study: 27% of adults over the age of 60, compared to an average of 16% in the 130 countries studied.
The study found many older adults in the Asia-Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa regions live with extended family members – 50% and 51%, respectively – followed closely by the Latin American and Middle East-North Africa regions, 41% and 39% respectively. In the U.S., only 6% of older adults live with extended family.
As defined by the American Society on Aging, solo agers lack the support system historically provided by a spouse or adult children. This support would be applied to “personal finance, access to healthcare and long-term care and personal autonomy as they age,” according to the ASA. In case of solo agers, they often need to look elsewhere for someone to act on their behalf when they are not able to do so for themselves.
Many older adults, whether they are coupled or solo agers, will often say, “I will get those services when I need them” or “We will move into a retirement community when we need assistance.”
It’s just as possible that a health incident will mean that someone else will be making those decisions for an older adult who has not planned for a sudden or even gradual loss of independence.
That was the situation for Myla Archer. A serious infection landed her in the hospital and it was a geriatric case manager with Caring Considerations who helped her transition out of the hospital into The View Alexandria, where she is now a resident.
Like Archer, John Phillips found himself in a senior living community by medical necessity. A traumatic brain injury landed him in a wheelchair and while he recovered enough to be mobile and was just 68 years old, he did not trust himself to remain in a condo. Phillips has never looked back.
“Living at The View Alexandria these last five years has not only given me health care support, it has given me friends and purpose,” Phillips said. “I care for many of the plants inside and outside, which gives me an opportunity to interact with others in that care and seeing other residents and staff enjoy the plants. Were I living alone, I might enjoy the plants I cared for, but I would never experience seeing others enjoy them.”
For Judith Knee, the decision to move into a retirement community was prompted by the road ahead as a solo ager. While active in the National Organization for Women and live theater organizations, she had no family left.
“Though I have many wonderful friends through organizations and causes I care passionately about, I could not count on friends to handle my care and would not want to impose the burden of my care on them,” Knee said. “It was at that moment, at the age of 72, that I realized it would be a good idea to be in a place where there is assistance if I need it.”
That day came for Knee.
“Needing care was theoretical when I moved into The View Alexandria five years ago,” Knee said. “But when I experienced spinal problems and intense arthritis, needing care became very real. And having therapy services right on site was invaluable.”
For Knee and Phillips, who have both lived in a retirement community for five years, they have found that communal living helps them navigate solo aging with daily support and a sense of community that would be hard to replicate alone in a home.
This topic of solo aging is the most popular of all programming topics for the Positive Aging Community, founded by Steve Gurney. Gurney organizes weekly online discussions on a variety of topics related to aging and longevity states.
“Solo aging is our most popular discussion topic, yet I continue to be surprised by the volume of married couples and people with children who attend. Couples realize that one is likely to outlive the other, and often folks don’t want to rely on their children for future needs,” Gurney said.
Planning ahead is something that Gurney finds to be challenging for many.
“The phrase I hear every day of the week is, ‘I am not ready yet,’ Gurney said. “Viewing ourselves as solo agers now or in the future is a great way to empower yourself for the future and plan for the time when support will be needed.”
There are many options to aging together and in community for older adults, whether that is continuing care at home organizations, retirement communities or other types of senior housing. With the many supports and options available, older adults do not have to age alone.
The writer is the chief strategy and marketing officer for Goodwin Living.