The average American’s chances of dying alone are now higher than ever, and experts fear society isn’t adapting quickly enough to care for the millions of single adults.
Bloomberg notes the health benefits of a vibrant social life cannot be understated. According to a 2010 review of 148 studies that followed 309,000 people in total for an average of 7.5 years, researchers determined social relationships increase a person’s chances of staying alive by a whopping 50 percent.
And yet, sadly, individuals, especially elderly men, are lonelier now than ever before, with social networks expected to only shrink further.
Almost half of US adults are now single. People are waiting longer to get married, having fewer children, and still, 50 percent of marriages end in divorce.
While the percentage of people living alone in 2015 was only one percent higher than those living alone in 1990, the age groups that are single have shifted considerably.
The percentage of people living by themselves aged 45 or younger has stayed the same, and roughly the same percentage of people 65 and older are single, as well. But adults between the ages of 45 and 65 are lonelier than ever. The divorce rate of adults aged between 55 and 64 has more than doubled, with 6.6 percent now living with neither a spouse nor a biological child.
Being alone and being “lonely” are two different things, however. As Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociology professor, notes: “Most people who live alone and age alone are quite active socially.” What he and other researchers in the field are worried about is the shrinking social network of family and friends combined.
“For most of human history, almost all older adults have been part of dense kin networks,” write sociologists Rachel Margolis and Ashton Verdery.
A lack of kin suggests an isolation that causes those who are alone to, in turn, feel lonely.
On average, baby boomers grew up in large families with lots of brothers and sisters. Now, women are having fewer children than ever before. The share of non-Hispanic blacks without close kin is expected to more than triple. (Immigration and a lack of data made it difficult to study other racial groups.)
Klinenberg says in place of relatives, many people “try to create their own families.” However, “those networks can be quite fragile.”
He suggests one simple policy plan: more housing for elderly people.
“Our society is evolving quickly, but probably not quickly enough,” he said.
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