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Many more seniors are living alone.
Is it a bad thing?

By Ian Logan, Administrator, New Horizons Tower

Toronto, ON, 23 October 2002 -- The Census of Population and the 2001 Labour Force Survey show that compared to the rest of the population, more seniors live alone as the sole occupants of a private dwelling than any other population group. The Labour Force Survey 2001 shows that nearly 3 in 10 seniors live alone, rising to almost 4 in 10 senior women. This represents about one million seniors, mostly widows. The question is is that a bad thing?

"First, let's get away from the stereotype that to be old is to be sick, unable to learn new things or pull your own weight," says Ian Logan, Administrator, New Horizons Tower, a retirement residence at Bloor and Dufferin in Toronto. "But let's take care that the seniors who are living alone can do so healthily, safely and comfortably and most importantly, stay involved with their community."

A recent study by the MacArthur Foundation in the US established that older people are much more likely to age well than to become decrepit and dependent. Of those aged 65 to 74, fully 89% reported no disability whatsoever. Even in advanced old age an overwhelming majority of the elderly population have little functional disability and the proportion that is disabled is being whittled away over time. Much of this is due to a huge reduction in acute infectious illnesses in the twentieth century, and more recent decline in precursors to chronic disease such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and smoking.

Older people can and do, learn new things. With regular physical activity, a strong social support system and belief in their own ability to handle what life has to offer, seniors have strong mental function in old age. They regularly learn to use appliances and equipment that were unknown in their youth and which all make living alone easier to accomplish like microwave ovens, ATMs, even mastering the mysteries of VCR programming. And now seniors are embracing computers in unprecedented numbers.

The assumption in our society today is that everyone who works for pay is pulling his or her own weight. Those who do not are a burden. Unpaid productive activity is not part of the equation for measuring contribution to society. Yet, in a larger sense older people are productive. One-third work for pay, another third as volunteers in churches, hospitals or charities and another as providing informal aid to family members, friends and neighbours.

Living alone has become much more common for all age groups over the last 50 years. For seniors however a number of factors have lead to the huge growth in seniors being the sole occupant of a private dwelling. The decline of extended families means that more grandparents, aunts and uncles who previously would have had a place with relatives are living on their own. Falling fertility rates and the movement of families to suburbs so that fewer children are living close by has also left many widowed seniors alone.

While many of us cherish the time we spend by ourselves, some are concerned about the increasing number of seniors living on their own and having less and less contact with the outside world. The 1998 General Social Survey (GSS) indicates that seniors are also spending much more time alone than the rest of the population. While on an average day Canadians spend nearly six hours alone, women 65 and over spend 8 hours alone and widowed seniors spend the most time alone, at over 10 hours.

For some, the increasing isolation of living alone and spending time alone can result in depression and anxiety. Loneliness and depression has been the fate of many previous generations of older Canadians, mostly because society had no role for them. According to the 1998 GSS, people who spent a lot of time by themselves were also less likely to be very happy with their lives than those who spent little time alone. Forty-eight percent of those who spent less than 2 hours alone on an average day were very happy compared to 37% who spent 8 or more hours by themselves. This difference was greatest among seniors.

So what can we do about seniors who are living on their own and spending too much time alone? For many seniors the answer is to find alternatives to being alone such as house sharing or moving to senior living communities and residences where they can maintain social connections, continue to learn and contribute to the larger community through employment or volunteerism.

Living in a retirement community gives seniors companionship, security and independence and leaves them with the freedom to enjoy their health, learn new things and contribute in whatever way they wish. Services such as housekeeping, linen service, dry cleaning and maintenance needs are taken care of while seniors enjoy chatting with friends and neighbours in a dining room or relaxing in central lounges or living rooms. Resident and community programs such as physical fitness, concerts, computer access and excursions are thoughtfully planned with seniors in mind. And for their families, knowing that medications can be monitored, that food is readily available and that there is 24-hour staffing can relieve many of their concerns.

"The final stereotype that seniors have to deal with is that moving to a retirement residence or community spells the end, that they are places to die," says Logan. "Life in a retirement residence can be fulfilling, enriched and affordable and seniors can often choose the life they want within a community of caring, well-trained staff and good neighbours," he added.

In many retirement residences seniors have the option to live fully independently in their own suite, or to choose a level of support and care that is right for them.

A glance at the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) Web site, demonstrates that today's seniors are ignoring retirement and continuing to stay engaged and active participants in society. Ironically, while examples of seniors enjoying productive lives abound, most Canadians continue to view aging as a totally negative process.

The good news for seniors, as well as those who will one day become seniors, is that most of these negative associations are wrong or exaggerated. Life no longer begins at 40!

Ian Logan is Administrator at New Horizons Tower, a Retirement Residence that offers the choice of independent or Assisted Living at Bloor & Dufferin in Toronto. For more information about New Horizons Tower visit

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