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Column: Living alone

If you are living alone, you are not alone. 

In the most recent census, approximately 36% of all households in America were single-person households.

There are many reasons for this. People are marrying later, or not at all. Many are divorcing. Birthrates are going down, leading to earlier empty nesting or more people having no children at all.

And compared to parts of the world where extended families often live together, seniors in the U.S. are more likely to live either as a couple or solo.

Some people wouldn’t live any other way. They can be as neat or messy as they wish. They can cook when they feel like it or eat peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. They don’t need to agree on what to watch on Netflix, and there is no one monitoring their comings and goings.

According to a recent article by Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., in Psychology Today, many people who choose to live alone love their solitude and are unlikely to feel lonely.

Those who thrive are not socially isolated. Instead, they choose when and how to be connected to others. Someone who has never married may live a life with friends, siblings, nieces and nephews taking a sizable role. A senior living alone may love the grandchildren’s visit, but be delighted when they leave. Basically, it comes down to personal choice and circumstances. 

According to Ms. DePaulo, the negative indicators are social isolation, loneliness, physical and cognitive impairments, and financial concerns. While this can be true at any age, it is most pronounced with an aging population.

A recent New York Times article headlined, “As Gen X and Boomers Age, They Confront Living Alone,” addresses some of these issues. Distances and busy lives make for less contact with their adult children. They wonder if their children will be there for them as they were for their aging parents.  Additionally, many people are living in houses that are larger than they need and expensive to maintain.

COVID was a dress rehearsal for what loneliness looks like and they want no part of it. The prospect of continuing to live alone for many in this group is looking formidable and daunting.

Much is written about “loneliness” versus “aloneness.” One British mental health organization defines loneliness as “the gap between one’s desire for social connection and their actual experiences of it.”

Studies show that the loneliest people are between the ages of 18 and 25, generally a population that is not living alone, but often feels misunderstood and alienated from others. 

So yes, it’s true that living alone is ideal for some, and one can also be lonely while not living alone. However, the research suggests living alone increases the risk of depression.

A 2016 study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that living alone raises the risk of social isolation, particularly for adults whose children live far away, and even more so for men than women. Also, people living alone tend to be poorer and more economically vulnerable, which increases the risk of depression. Mitigating factors are the accessibility to neighborhood resources, neighborhood safety, a sense of belonging, social cohesion, and green spaces.

Shelter Island, with its large population of seniors and retirees, has many homes with one occupant.  Children have grown, spouses have died, and singles have aged. According to the Comprehensive Plan, about 39% of households comprise a single person, slightly more than the national average. 

Consistent with the NIH study, the abundant small-town activity offerings and the incredible sense of community can make our island ideal for older adult single living (although, not so good for young singles!).

This explains why so many people choose to retire here. But as COVID showed us, when the activities and the social connections ceased, many people became isolated and depressed. Laurie Fanelli, our indefatigable Senior Center director, recognized the problem immediately and worked to re-connect with members left adrift.

But nearly three years later, the effects are still being felt. Some people lost the motivation to leave their homes and pursue what used to be fun.  Others are still afraid.

For people living alone unhappily in a home too large for them, one option is to open their home to young families or people looking for affordable housing. The young people can assist with shopping, cooking, and home repair while bringing youth and fun into the home.

Another option is to join forces with another single-living friend, selling one house and jointly sharing the expenses of the other.

What all this tells us is that Shelter Island can be a wonderful place to live alone given the social connections, green space, and sense of community. But loneliness and social isolation here is no different from anywhere else. If we do not see our neighbors out and about, it is incumbent on us to seek them out and find out if they are O.K.

Senior outreach programs can be accessed through the Senior Center at 631-749-1059. Additionally, our new Town Social Worker  Alexandra Hakim is available to counsel those suffering from depression. She can be reached at 631-749-8807 or [email protected]

Living alone can be extremely satisfying. It can also be difficult. Through social connections, neighborliness, and community, we can help our retirees feel more comfortable in their homes and in their selves.

Nancy Green is a retired social worker and a member of the Shelter Island Health and Wellness Alliance.