For several decades, data from the Census Bureau and Administration on Aging show that many Americans over sixty-five years old are living alone as they age. However, a Merck Manual written by Drs. Daniel B. Kaplan and Barbara J. Berkman suggests that living alone can be unhealthy for some.
For caregivers and their loved ones evaluating whether or not a given senior should be living alone, there are often pros and cons to both staying in place and moving on. What can help sway these decisions one way or another is a consideration of all the facts. Getting the answers to the following three helpful questions can aid in deciding whether or not an elderly loved one can live alone.
Question 1: Are ADLs Completed Each Day?
Activities of daily living, or ADLs, are the simple activities people complete each day in order to continue living. These consist of basic hygiene (bathing, brushing one’s teeth, putting on clean clothes for the day), cleaning around the house (dusting, vacuuming, washing dishes, taking care of pets or plants), eating (including buying groceries and preparing meals), and getting adequate healthcare (such as going to doctors’ appointments or getting vitamins from the store).
An elderly person may need help completing these activities. This may be some of the care family members provide. It may include running errands to pick up groceries or prescriptions. Professional caregivers may help too. In-home care may also contribute to the accomplishment of some of these activities. Sometimes in home care aides also provide general homemaking care, which typically features keeping the house tidy, preparing meals, running errands, and providing social interaction. If all ADLs can be completed safely, then living alone may be a safe and pleasant option for a senior.
Question 2: Is the Elderly Person Physically Safe?
Some seniors face mobility challenges which make moving around much more difficult. Plus, all seniors live with the serious risks that can come with a fall. If an elderly person lives in a place which does not allow the person to be safe moving around—such as a place with cluttered or uneven floors, stairs with no elevator access, or other obstacles to mobility—living alone may not be right. A change in location might be better. Senior living facilities should be considered in that case, especially if budget considerations will allow for it.
Neighborhoods can also complicate living alone. In a neighborhood with high crime rates, a senior living alone may fall victim to a crime. Living in a floodplain without access to a vehicle could leave a senior stranded during bad weather. If a senior lives in an isolated rural area, where the person might experience a health emergency without someone to check on him or her for days on end, it could be deadly.
Keep in Mind Some Other Issues Seniors May Face Living Alone
Additionally, seniors living alone run the risk of experiencing depression, isolation, and loneliness. If seniors do not have access to a social community, they may be in danger of the many complications which accompany poor mental and emotional health. Seniors who wander due to dementia and other types of cognitive decline are also at risk if their neighbors are not aware of their condition. Plus, a home close to the highway or near dangerous places could result in them being lost or hurt. It is generally agreed that seniors at serious risk for wandering should not live alone at all.
If a senior is living alone and is in danger of experiencing a health emergency, there needs to be an established way the person can contact help. LifeAlert badges and similar emergency notification devices, as well as cell phones and even security monitoring devices, can help ensure that, in the case of an emergency, an elderly loved one can get help. Seniors who have access to these devices or can gain access to them might be better suited to living alone.
Question 3: Is the Living Situation Happy?
Beyond safety concerns, it is vital that seniors live in an environment which helps them experience the joys of aging. Sometimes, seniors enjoy living alone because it helps them maintain their privacy and freedom. It also allows them to go about their business without interference. For other seniors, living alone is perilous and lonely. In many cases, living alone comes with a mixture of both reactions. What is important to mental and emotional health is that seniors find happiness. This is, of course, once physical safety concerns are out of the way.
Talking to elderly loved ones about what they most enjoy about aging and what they value about their lives now can help family members decide whether living alone is still feasible for their seniors. Decisions about the seniors’ living arrangements may become team efforts. Such team efforts should always balance seniors’ needs as well as their desires, goals, and hopes.
Administration for Community Living. Administration on Aging (AoA). Highlights. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Available at http://www.aoa.acl.gov/aging_statistics/profile/2014/2.aspx. Retrieved September 5, 2016.
Kaplan, Daniel B., and Berkman, Barbara J. Older People Living Alone. Merck Manual: Consumer Version. Merck Available at https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/older-people%E2%80%99s-health-issues/social-issues-affecting-older-people/older-people-living-alone#. Retrieved September 5, 2016.
Portacolone, Elena. The Secrets of Older Americans Living Alone. The Huffington Post, August 18, 2012. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/american-anthropological-association/living-alone_b_1606819.html. Retrieved September 5, 2016.
United States Census Bureau. Sixty-Five Plus in the United States. Census.gov, May 1995. Available at https://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/statbriefs/agebrief.html. Retrieved September 5, 2016.