According to the Administration on Aging, about 20 percent of men and 36 percent of women over 65 live alone. In total, these percentages represent about 13.3 million elderly people living by themselves (as of 2015). As sobering as those statistics may sound, it makes a lot of sense you've spent the majority of your adult life living independently, why uproot your life to live in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar faces? Independence, whether you're a senior or not, is an important part of living with a high quality of life.
That said, humans are a social species. Even the most introverted of us need some human interaction. We're social creatures out of necessity, and not just for our emotional and psychological well-being, but for our physical well-being. If you've ever had a long-term partner, you understand how important it is to have another person in your life that is intrinsically interested in your well-being, and vice versa. When you're concerned about another's happiness and well-being, you're also more likely to take care of yourself.
If you find yourself living alone, whether because you've lost a partner or you prefer living alone to other options, it's important to understand the dangers and risks inherent in your situation. Below are 10 important dangers that come with living alone as a senior:
1. Social Isolation
A study of over 6,500 elderly people by University College London suggests that social isolation significantly reduces your lifespan, posing both mental and physical health issues. Social isolation doesn't just effect your mental health, it increases your risk of heart disease, infectious illness, cognitive deterioration and high blood pressure. The long and short of it is this: Living alone affects you in physical ways that you may not correlate to your situation.
It's important to note that the study makes a distinction between social isolation and loneliness, though loneliness is a serious symptom of social isolation. You can still suffer from the mental and physical health risks of social isolation even if you don't feel lonely. If you're not actively interacting with family, friends and people in general, if you don't feel like an active part of a community of people, then you're socially isolated.
2. Greater Chance of Depression
Depression can be a symptom of social isolation, but you don't have to be socially isolated to suffer from it. And depression isn't just another word for feeling sad. Sadness often has nothing to do with it. In fact, it presents itself as a general loss of interest, concentration, energy, appetite and motivations.
People can suffer from clinical depression for a long time without realizing it. These symptoms can go unchecked when you live alone because you don't have the advantage of the external perspective of another to notice them.
3. Higher Rate of Anxiety
Anxiety and depression are often different sides of the same coin. Anxiety expresses itself physically with insomnia, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dry mouth, nausea, dizziness, muscle tension, numbness in hands and feet. As with depression, anxiety is the result of changes in the brain and environmental stress.
Anxiety is often the result of feeling unsafe, which is magnified when you live in social isolation. When you live alone and you don't have someone to talk to on a regular basis, you put yourself at a higher risk for developing an anxiety disorder.
4. More Likely to be Poor
Elderly people who live alone are far more likely to be live below the poverty level and struggle with paying bills. Sometimes this is out of necessity not everyone is able to retire with sufficient savings. However, some elderly people live in poverty because they don't know how to manage their retirement savings properly.
It's easy to forget to pay pills and rack up fees and interest when you don't have someone living with you to help you remember or offer advice.
5. Lack of Help in an Emergency
This risk nearly goes without saying. If you fell in your home and you were not able to reach your phone, would others know? You could find yourself stuck in a helpless situation for hours or days if you live alone.
6. Greater Risk of Fall Hazards
Your risk of falling and experiencing a traumatic injury increases dramatically after age of 65. Elderly falls are one of the leading causes of death and morbidity among the elderly. When you live alone, you don't have an extra pair of eyes ensuring that your home is free from tripping hazards. You also don't have someone who can help you get help if you do fall.
7. Greater Rick of Accidental Overdoses
It's no secret that your chance of taking prescription medication increases as you age. With this comes the risk of accidental overdose. This is because it's easy (for anyone who takes prescription medications at any age) to forget that they already took their pills. This occurs after taking the pills becomes a habit that you don't really think about. Imagine this scenario: You've taken your morning pill, showered and brushed your teeth when you suddenly think Did I take my pill? So you take another pill.
While taking a second dosage isn't generally much of a problem, if you're suffering from mild dementia, which could go unnoticed if you live alone, then this could easily turn into three or more extra dosages as you fail to remember taking each dosage.
8. Higher Rate of Malnutrition
Elderly people who live alone are at a much higher risk for malnutrition, which can be a symptom of depression, anxiety, poverty and more. However, malnutrition can also simply be the result of basic nutritional ignorance.
If you spent most of your life living with someone who made most of the dietary decisions and find yourself suddenly alone, then malnutrition may be a possibility.
9. Unable to Maintain Basic Housekeeping
Perhaps you're depressed and unmotivated. Perhaps you're physical unable. But maintaining basic housekeeping is another risk of social isolation with the elderly. Your house might be too much for you to keep up with on your own.
Making sure you keep a clean and hygienic home can feel like an impossible task when you're the only one tasked with it, especially if you find some of the chores physically difficult, such as taking out the garbage.
10. Greater Chance of Missing Symptoms
When you live with someone, they can see things that you can't. They provide an external perspective on your well-being. You might be displaying symptoms of illnesses and diseases that you'll either never notice or choose to ignore on your own. Also, their concern for your well-being means that it's far more likely that you'll be compelled to see a doctor when new symptoms are presented.
What You Can Do
The quality of life you enjoy in your twilight years is paramount. It is, after all, your life. And that might mean living alone, which is okay so long as you understand the risks involved with it. If you're worried about the risks, there are options.
Medical Alert Systems
You've probably seen the commercials an elderly lady falls and screams for help. If you live alone, a medical alert system can provide peace of mind for you and your family. If you fall or have a medical emergency, a medical alert system is an affordable way of ensuring you never find yourself in a situation where you're stuck, in pain, without a way of getting help.
You can read our review of medical alert systems to find the best system to suit your needs. We've also reviewed GPS medical alert systems and fall detection systems. GPS systems are ideal for active seniors. You can literally go anywhere where cellular signals are present and receive help in an emergency. Fall detection systems can detect when you've fallen, which allows you to receive help even if you're unconscious as a result of the fall.
Assisted Living & Senior Living Communities
Very few seniors like the terms "nursing home" and "old folks' home." And for good reason. These terms are often associated with losing one's independence, usually at the insistence of a son or daughter.
That said, an assisted living community is perhaps the best way to ensure you're not living in social isolation. These communities vary widely to the extent at which the inhabitants live and interact. Some places provide active care from on-site nurses while other places are simply little more than apartment complexes for seniors with social events. Of course, assisted living communities aren't a realistic option for many people who simply cannot afford it on their own.
If you make the decision to move into a senior living community, then it's far more likely that you won't feel like your independence is being taken away.
Living With Family
Living with family is the ideal situation for most seniors because it allows you to live with people who are intrinsically interested in your well-being. Living with a son or daughter can alleviate the financial stress of living on your own while also providing emotional and social support. To learn more, read our articles on senior care.