Women Are Aging Alone More Than Ever (And Figuring How to Make It Work)

It can be an empowering choice for an older woman to live on her own — but that doesn't mean it's easy. (Photo: Nikodash/Shutterstock)

You've probably noticed this among people you know: When it comes to older women, more of them live alone than men. That observation is borne out in the data, too. In a report from the Administration on Aging, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, A Profile of Older Americans: 2016 shows that fewer than half of women over 65 lived with a partner — but almost 75 percent of men did. And the older the woman, the less likely she was to live with a spouse. Only about one-third of women who were 75 or older lived with a spouse.

This discrepancy is due to three reasons: The first is that women live longer than men, so among heterosexual relationships, there are fewer men to partner up with as both groups age. The second is that no matter what their age, straight men (as a group) want and expect to date women younger than they are. According to data amassed and analyzed by OkCupid from their millions of users, "the male fixation on youth distorts the dating pool." In their research they found that "... as he gets older, he searches for relatively younger and younger women ... a man's bias toward younger women becomes even more evident when we overlay his stated preferences with his actual messaging habits."

The third reason is that many older women aren't interested in finding or living with a partner later in life — some much prefer to go it alone, while men are more likely to look for a new partner. How many straight women have you talked to who have said, post-divorce, that they were "done with men," and meant it? I know quite a few, contrasted with just one woman who has chosen to continue dating after a break-up.

Regardless of why women are living on their own, they're finding sources of support and community; they're also figuring out new ways to get both.

Little help for women who live alone

senior woman walking in town
Almost one-third of senior women say they'd like to live in a small house in a village. (Photo: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock)

Carol Marak, an aging alone expert and founder of the Facebook group Elder Orphans, is one of the people doing that work. She told us about her program via an email. Elder Orphans is an online group of almost 10,000 for "individuals over 55 who live without the help of a spouse, partner, and children." Groups like it fill a need that isn't being met in other ways. Marak recently conducted a survey of people in her group (98 percent of whom are women) to learn more about what they need and aren't able to find.

Her survey uncovered some statistics that she found "alarming," including that there's little help for women who live alone. "Seventy percent have not identified a potential caregiver, 55 percent have no help with medical decisions and 35 percent no help in a crisis," says Marak, while also noting that this is a self-selected group of more privilege than the rest of the population. "The respondents of this study are [educated] better than most (70 percent have a college degree) and they joined my elder orphan group to connect with others, like me, in the same situation. They are overall in a better position to age alone than most — and the results are still eye opening."

Delving into the data, it's interesting to note that while half of the women would prefer to stay in their homes, 29 percent would like to live in a tiny home in a village. A minority (12 percent) would like assisted living, but only if it were affordable. Only 7 percent would want to share a home with like-minded roommates, "Golden-Girl" style, and even fewer want to live with family members (just 2 percent).

Cohousing is one way forward, which provides both community, lower expenses and potentially lower environmental impact than living alone. But Marak says that while the idea of cohousing isn't new, it isn't readily available. Ideas are great, but community housing created with older people's needs in mind is in short supply. Still, "I believe cohousing will be our go-to housing in the future; live in a high-rise and enjoy my connections," says Marak.

The importance of interdependency

two senior women looking at a phone
While some women want to spend more time alone, others relish time spent together. (Photo: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock)

Marak's survey also found that some of these older women were quite vulnerable. "Nineteen percent had a risk of being homeless at some point, 26 percent fear they'll lose their home and 78 percent have no help with bills or financial decisions," says Marak. Living on a fixed income can be challenging when prices rise and unexpected bills occur.

"I think we relish independence but when we face vulnerabilities, we learn the importance of interdependency," says Marak.

Even if the women are in good health and doing OK financially, things can change with age. For example, 92 percent of people in Marak's study got around via personal car — but what happens when they can no longer drive?

Ultimately, older women are going to have a variety of needs and wants. Some will want to spend more time with others, and some will relish alone time after a long life filled with the demands of a husband or kids. It's important to remember that alone doesn't always mean lonely, but community is important. As recent studies have shown, loneliness is unhealthy, physically and mentally. Marak's survey showed that 52 percent of the women who responded said they were, indeed, lonely.

"We need to build our support system — neighbors, friends, meet ups — it's vital that we create connections of support," says Marak. Regardless of how independent you are, having others to help you when you need it is vital for everyone.