Bella argues that practical changes and new understandings need to be reached because worldwide, so many people are now living alone. As an all too often misunderstood lifestyle, Bella advocates and leads the global conversation through her research and writing on issues affecting singles and people living alone from her base in California.
3 things to takeaway:
- Living alone is increasingly common, but many policies and social practices don’t reflect the trend.
- There is a need for more housing, services, and goods tailored to people who live solo.
- People who live alone may have both vulnerabilities and strengths that others do not fully appreciate.
In the past half-century or so, solo living has become a demographic juggernaut. According to a United Nations report, around the world, one-person households are now just as typical as households comprising of a couple with no children. Further, across Europe and North America, there are more households consisting of just one person than of couples and their children.
In too many ways, though, societies are experiencing “cultural lag”. They have still to catch up with this dramatic evolution in how people are living. Countless things need to change. Here I will mention just a few of those much-needed changes, focusing on the United States where I live, but where the issues will no doubt resonate with singles and people living alone outside of the US.
Affordable housing and innovative living arrangements
We need more affordable housing solutions suitable for individuals living alone. Not just individual apartments and homes, but also arrangements such as cohousing neighbourhoods for people who want a sense of community while still having a place of their own.
Some trends seem headed in the wrong direction. Data just released by the US Census Bureau show that the number of newly constructed rental units was heading downward even before the pandemic started. It is not because they cannot find occupants, as the same report indicates that 94% of newly available apartments are taken for rent within a year of going on the market.
Housing that meets the needs of more people
In North America, 26% of people who are 60 or older live alone. (It’s 27% for the U.S. alone). That’s more than every other region of the world except Europe where the figure is higher. Older people and many people of all ages with disabilities need housing that works for them, especially if they live alone. But only 10% of available housing in the U.S. includes features such as step-free entryways and grab bars in bathrooms.
People who live alone are often quite independent and resourceful. Still, specific tasks are more easily accomplished with help, and there are other tasks that some solo dwellers just don’t want to do. Platforms such as TaskRabbit and Thumbtack provide some opportunities to find help, but those kinds of options need to be available in more places. And, of course, they need to be affordable.
Patients require to have a ride for some medical procedures, and it can’t always be from services such as taxis or Ubers. Sometimes patients need people to stay with them when they are hospitalised or help them when they get home. Some services are available to seniors, but people who live alone who are not seniors face more challenges. It shouldn’t be so difficult or so expensive to navigate the logistics of getting medical care.
Packaging of products
Too often, items are sold in quantities that are wasteful to people living alone. In supermarkets, for example, perishable items are sometimes sold in amounts that solo dwellers could never consume before they go bad. It would help if food items were sold in smaller portions (without charging proportionately more) and if more items were offered in bulk so shoppers could buy as much or as little as they wish.
Other kinds of items beyond food, such as homeware, are sometimes sold in quantities of little interest to people living alone. That should change, too.
People on their own often get charged more per person than couples or families. That’s true for insurance, memberships, cultural events, travel, and probably just about everything else you can think of. That goes against the principle I devised called Fairness for Single People.
Hospitality and travel
More and more people are dining alone and travelling alone, and they are not just people who live alone. Restaurants need to make solo customers feel welcome. No more hiding them in the back, next to the swinging door of the kitchen. The travel industry can do more to accommodate solo travellers, for example, by offering more private rooms that are affordable, more options for finding suitable roommates for those who prefer sharing, and less piling on of excess fees.
A bit of enlightenment would also come in handy now and then, as Joan DelFattore pointed out when a tour guide told the couples on her trip that they should invite the single travellers to dine with them. Take a look at her discussion of the three things wrong with the well-intentioned gesture if they are not already obvious to you.
Recognising the vulnerabilities of Solos
Political leaders, across the political spectrum, are exquisitely sensitive to the needs and wishes of couples and families, especially ‘working families’ and ‘hardworking families’. Take this, for example, when a Senator tweeted that Daylight Saving Time should become permanent to “give families more sunlight to enjoy after work and school”. Because how could you possibly enjoy sunlight if you are single and living alone?
Headline writers for prestigious publications also use the same language of families that excludes single people. A New York Times article, for example, was introduced with the headline, “Which families will receive the most money from the stimulus bill?” Single people living alone also receive money from the bill.
That sort of language is alienating to the single people who are excluded by it. But it’s more than hurt feelings at stake. A focus on families can leave policymakers and everyone else oblivious to the real vulnerabilities of those who are living alone and single. For example, they can’t fall back on a spouse’s income if they lose their jobs. Surveys show that their needs are more likely to be ignored. During the pandemic, food insecurity has been a bigger problem for single people than for married people with or without children. Yet, single people have also been less likely to get help alleviating their hunger.
Food insecurity is just one example. In many other ways, too, single people who are not seniors and who do not have children may well be one of the demographics least likely to get the help they need.
Recognising the strengths of Solos
People who live alone have often been stereotyped as isolated and lonely. The so-called pity party has only intensified during the pandemic. Of course, some people who live alone really are isolated and lonely and at risk of compromised physical and mental health. However, studies supposedly documenting the risks of living alone often fall down in important ways.
For example, those studies don’t always consider the ways in which the lives of people who live alone may differ from people who live with others. It is those differences, rather than the fact of living alone, which may account for the risks.
In a significant study that did control for those differences, the people who lived alone were actually less lonely than the people who lived with others. Even more importantly, I have never seen a study of the implications of living alone that included this critical question: Do you want to be living alone?
What it means to live alone is going to be strikingly different for the person just widowed after a half-century of marriage and the person who loves living alone and hopes to be able to continue doing so until the day they die.
As for the pandemic, many people who are single at heart and living alone are not just surviving but even thriving, as I explained in this article recently published by NBC News.
For plenty of people, getting to live alone is a triumph. It is what they always wanted and what they cherish once they attain it. They have their independence as well as their meaningful connections to other people. They are often resourceful and resilient. Their experiences show that the isolated and lonely solo dweller’s story is not the only story that needs to be told.
The original version of this article can be found here.