February 18, 2016

Smaller Share of Women Ages 65 and Older Are Living Alone

More are living with spouse or children

After rising for nearly a century, share of older women living alone is on decline

After rising steadily for nearly a century, the share of older Americans who live alone has fallen since 1990, largely because women ages 65 to 84 are increasingly likely to live with their spouse or their children. The likelihood of living alone has grown since 1990 for older men and for women ages 85 and up.

Between 1900 and 1990, the share of adults ages 65 and older living alone increased nearly fivefold, from 6% to 29%. This growth was spurred by a host of factors, including improved health and longevity among older Americans and the economic security that came with social safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare. 1

A new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data finds that from 1990 to 2014, the share of older adults living alone declined by 3 percentage points, to 26%. Among older women, the share declined to 32% in 2014 from 38% in 1990. Among older men, the share living alone ticked upward to 18% in 2014 from 15% in 1990.

One explanation for this trend is that an increase in life expectancy, especially among men, has made it more likely that older women would be living with their spouses rather than as widows.

Among women ages 65 to 84 – the group that has almost exclusively driven the overall decline in the share of older Americans living alone – the share living alone has declined by 8 percentage points since 1990, reaching 30% in 2014. During the same period, the share of this group living with a spouse increased from 41% to 46%. Women in this age group were also more likely to be unmarried and living with their children or with other relatives or non-relatives in 2014.

Older men ages 65 to 84, on the other hand, are somewhat less likely to live with a spouse now compared with 1990, though most still do. Living arrangements for men in this age group have grown more diverse as a rising share have divorced and not remarried.

Most older adults want to age in place

Overall, women still make up a majority of the 12.1 million older U.S. adults living alone, but their share has fallen significantly over the past quarter century – from 79% in 1990 to 69% in 2014.

Recent Pew Research Center survey findings underline the extent to which older adults value their independence and wish to live in their own home, even when they can no longer care for themselves. In a survey conducted Oct. 27-Nov. 24, 2014, among 1,692 adults, about six-in-ten adults ages 65 and older (61%) say that if there came a time when they could no longer live on their own, they would stay in their own home and have someone care for them there. And older men and women are equally as likely to say this. Another 17% of older adults say they would move into an assisted living facility, and 8% say they would move in with a family member.

Older adults living alone feel more financially strapped than those living with others

The survey findings also underscore the potential downsides of living alone. Older adults who live alone feel more financially strapped than older adults who live with others. 2 When asked to describe their household’s financial situation, only 33% of those living alone say they live comfortably. By contrast, about half (49%) of older adults who live with others say they live comfortably.

In some ways those who live alone also feel somewhat more socially isolated. A Pew Research Center survey conducted Feb. 23-March 23, 2009, among 2,969 U.S. adults (including 1,328 adults ages 65 and older who responded to questions about their living arrangements) found that older adults living alone are less likely than older adults who live with others to say that, as they’ve aged, they have more time with their family. And men who live alone (but not women) are less satisfied with the number of friends they have than are men who live with others. However, older adults who live alone and those who live with others are equally likely to say they receive the right amount of help from their children.

This report uses U.S. Census Bureau data to describe trends in living arrangements among older adults over the past 25 years, focusing on differences in gender and age.

Using data from Pew Research Center surveys, the report also analyzes the well-being of older Americans who live alone, looking at their economic status, their satisfaction with key aspects of their lives, and their relationships with their children and grandchildren.

Other key findings:

  1. Lower fertility rates leading to a lower number of available children to reside with, or a growing desire for autonomy while aging, may be additional explanations for the increase in the share of older adults living alone. See Kramarow, 1995; Ruggles, 2007; and McGarry and Schoeni, 2000 for further discussion on the reasons for the decline of intergenerational households and the rise of living alone among older adults from the mid-19th century to the end of the 20th century.
  2. In the analysis for the 2014 and 2009 Pew Research Center surveys, older adults who live alone may be in living in their own home or in an assisted living facility by themselves. Older adults living with others may be living with their spouse, children, other family members or non-family members.
  3. The questions on how frequently one communicates with their children and grandchildren asked respondents only to think about relatives who did not live with them.