More and More Americans are Growing Old Alone – Why That’s a Problem

The phenomenon has been trending in the wrong direction for some time: the older generation is, predictably, growing older. However, in a twist that many of them didn’t expect, their golden years aren’t quite as they’d planned – they’re alone. 

With improved healthcare, as well as the decline in marriage rates and an increase in divorce, the baby boom generation – graying by the second - is emerging as the loneliest aging generation of all time.

‘Baby boomers are aging alone more than any generation in U.S. history, and the resulting loneliness is a looming public health threat. About one in 11 Americans age 50 and older lacks a spouse, partner or living child, census figures and other research show. That amounts to about eight million people in the U.S. without close kin, the main source of companionship in old age, and their share of the population is projected to grow.’ (Wall Street Journal)

This loneliness has tangible effects. Being on one’s own during what are statistically the most trying health times of human life drastically increases the likelihood that an individual will become a greater burden on the federal system that is taxed with taking care of the elderly. Medicare is one thing with a growing population, but the cost of taking care of a generation that is not only disproportionately large, but also disproportionately lonely, into their greying years presents a concerning financial problem.

While it’s difficult to measure on a per-person basis, the rise in loneliness will undoubtedly contribute to ill health effects in the baby boomer generation.

‘The potentially harmful effects of loneliness and social isolation on health and longevity, especially among older adults, are well established. For example, in 2013 I reported on research finding that loneliness can impair health by raising levels of stress hormones and inflammation, which in turn can increase the risk of heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and even suicide attempts.’ (New York Times)

These feelings of stress, and the physical symptoms that accompany them, contribute to the simplest, most basic of self-care necessities.

‘Among older people who reported they felt left out, isolated or lacked companionship, the ability to perform daily activities like bathing, grooming and preparing meals declined and deaths increased over a six-year study period relative to people who reported none of these feelings.’ (NYT)

According to the Wall Street Journal, the lack of strong networks – a sure sign of and cause of loneliness – cost Medicare $6.7 billion last year due to the expenses related to nursing facilities and hospitalizations, the cost of which could not be offset by family or children of the elderly. Different governments are attacking the problem differently – England appointed its first Minister for Loneliness in January of this year – but there’s no denying that, in the Western world, it is a serious problem.

And, the longer that the generations continue to live, the more likely it is that they will have to experience a greater period of loneliness, assuming that current trends continue. The average life expectancy for an American in 2018 was 80 years for males, and a staggering 84 years for women

If an individual is not married, or their partner dies at a reasonably ripe age – say, 64 – then that’s a lot of time spent on their own. And, with healthcare slated only to improve and current social mores regarding divorce and non-marriage seemingly unchanging, there’s no reason to believe that current trend towards widespread loneliness and the associated ill health effects will slow.

In fact, younger generations are displaying trends towards chronic isolation – and the ill effects of loneliness – in greater extremes, and at younger ages. It’s no secret that today’s young adults are suffering through an epidemic of loneliness with no end in sight. Social media, which is ubiquitous and only becoming more ingrained in young people at younger ages, is increasing feelings of isolation, but that is just one example of a broader issue.

Young people, raised by a generation that displayed a wanton flippancy towards divorce, are often jaded with the concept of marriage from a young age. Less than 50% of adults aged 18-64 in the United States were married, as of this year – an all-time low mark. This, along with more extreme trends - who needs a girlfriend when you can have a sex doll? – are not positive indications that the loneliness epidemic will subside in the coming decades. 

It’s clear that a problem is at hand, and that proposals for solving the loneliness crises are in order. But, when considering the nature of the problem and the deep, structural causes that have led to its rise, it is fair to consider whether the loneliness crisis and its effects are problems that can be solved at all. 

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