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The Perils of Aging Alone

The number of Americans living single is soaring, and our bag-lady fears may not be so far-fetched

By Jane Gross

Old and alone.

The words haunt me.
You know the platitude: Few people fear death but rather the process of dying. Well, I'm not so much afraid of dying as I am of dying with nobody by my side.

This is the plight of those of us who are single and childless, and we now make up 27 percent of households in America – the second-largest type, according to the Census Bureau. The largest remains married couples, with children or without, although for the first time since such data collection began, they now represent fewer than half of all households, at 48 percent.
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"Whatever happened to the typical American family of four: Mom, Pop and two kids?" the MetLife Mature Market Institute asks in its recent study, "The New American Family," compiled in partnership with the Society of Actuaries Committee on Post Retirement Needs and Risks. That is precisely the kind of family I grew up in, but such groupings are becoming historical artifacts, like rotary phones and rabbit ears on TV sets. From 1960 to 2010, the number of U.S. households more than doubled, from 53 million to 117 million. But in that same period, the number of married couples with children actually declined, from 23.9 million to 23.6 million. Such families now make up just 20 percent of American households, down from 45 percent in 1960.
The High Cost of Living Alone

The most stunning change in American household data, though, is the rapid increase in the number of people living alone. There were 7 million of us in 1960, representing just 13 percent of all households. Now there are 31.2 million, a jump of 350 percent. Among those of us who are age 65 or older, 45 percent live alone — and this development will have significant repercussions for both retirement planning and long-term care.

The new report doesn't sugarcoat the situation. "There is no easy solution to helping the many millions of single individuals plan for their retirement and manage their short- or long-term health care expenses,'' its authors write. "Families are a significant social support system — between spouses and partners, but also between parents and children."

As the family changes and the number of single-person households rises, there will be "financial and social consequences,'' the report says, with implications for both individuals and the nation. Among them:

  • Limited assistance for single people from retirement programs, like Social Security, whose spousal benefits will not be available.
  • No access to a second income, found in two-thirds of married households, which helps couples cover living expenses and finance personal retirement programs.
  • Greater difficulty convalescing at home, with no family assistance, in a time when many medical procedures are done on an outpatient basis and hospital stays are short and shrinking.
  • The premature need, at potentially great cost to the federal budget, for elderly singles to move into group settings, like assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. Most such people would prefer to age in place even as their health declines, but will not be able to because of a lack of family caregivers, who remain the bulwark of the current long-term care system.

The study also examined the fears that people expressed as they grew older, like not being able to maintain a reasonable standard of living in retirement, pay for health care and manage changes in Social Security and Medicare. And researchers looked at which types of households actually faced the greatest risk from these challenges. On average, researchers found, couples — especially those in first marriages with two incomes — were better off financially than singles. They were also more likely to have lowered or shed debt, invested for their retirement, met with a financial adviser and, overall, to "feel they have planned well enough that they can face problems when they arise.''
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None of this is counterintuitive. Non-couples are well aware of their vulnerability. Of all the permutations of households studied, those who were single and childless had the lowest rate of home ownership and the second-lowest average household income and assets — in both cases, behind only those who were divorced. Their concerns about financial security were greater than those of couples, especially among women, who told researchers it was harder to save for retirement.

Calculating the Odds

The research puts flesh on the jagged bones of my own worries, not that I really needed it. And my worries rage, despite how relatively privileged I am compared to the average single, childless woman: I have always made a good living, and do so even in semi-retirement. I own a home and, but for my mortgage, carry no debt. I have savings and long-term care insurance. I have a financial adviser, who is more worried about my neurotic frugality than he is that I might go over the financial cliff. Before leaving my job at The New York Times, at age 60, with a generous buyout and a book contract, I insisted that he plot my future. Assuming I never earned another dime in my life, with the expected addition of Social Security at age 67 and of my last mortgage payment being made at age 70, we calculated how much I could spend per year through age 85, without running out of money.
So I've planned my future as best I can — disaster preparedness against a lonely old age — but it hasn't stilled my bag-lady worries. And I know I'm not the only woman who has them. At every speech I've ever given — most are about the aged and their adult children — I'm pelted with questions from dutiful daughters, like myself, who know that there is nobody to do for them what they are doing for their mothers or fathers. What preparations would I suggest, they ask?
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Struggling not to tear up, which you're not supposed to do when you're the "expert" standing at a lectern and wearing a microphone, my answer is always the same: Save every dime you can to buy the care and kindness of strangers, which you know may be wildly expensive because you are doing it for your parents for free. And make sure you have lots of younger people in your life, like the 31-year-old twin daughters of my best friend from sleep-away camp, who have already promised to "feed me creamed spinach'' when the time comes.
That same friend is one of many people who has told me over the years that nobody got married or had children simply as a hedge against the indignities of old age — not that I ever suggested they had — merely that they wound up advantaged to live in the embrace of families. "A husband and children are no guarantee,'' they would tell me, almost without exception.
This to me has always seemed a failure of empathy. I like my life just fine and probably wouldn't trade it, but it does have its downsides. Why pretend otherwise? So I carefully crafted an answer for my "well-daughtered" friends, as I've come to think of them, and it has been useful at those moments when their "no guarantee'' comment has felt flippant enough to send me into a rage.
"I'll take your odds over mine," I'd say, "because mine are zero.''

Jane Gross, a retired correspondent for the New York Times and the founder of its blog The New Old Age, is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves (Knopf 2011, Vintage 2012). Read More
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