Friends Play a Key Role in the Lives of an Increasing Demographic of Women Living Solo

Article excerpt

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, more than 25 percent of all households consist of one person living alone, and many of these households are made up of older persons. Among individuals older than 65, women are more likely to live alone than men- a demographic occurring mainly because of women's increased life expectancy, and the tendency for women to marry (and outlive) an older male spouse.

These elderly women face the potential of social isolation and need services that encourage social connection.

My motivation to study this population is personal. About 10 years ago, my grandfather passed away, leaving my 75-year-old grandmother to live by herself for the first time in her life. I assumed my grandmother would be socially isolated as a new widow, and I made a vow to check in often.

However, she was rarely home to take my calls. She was out with friends, pursuing hobbies and attending social events. Although she was grieving, she enjoyed her newfound freedom and appreciated the independence after many years spent caregiving.

Measuring Loneliness and Social Support

My grandmother's adjustment to living alone did not fit with the research I was reading as a doctoral student, so my idea for a mixed-methods study was born. In 2007, 1 set out to study depression, loneliness and social support among women who were ages 65 or older (mean age = 77 years; age range 65-93 years) and lived alone. Most of these 53 women were widows, and few had lived alone before their husbands died.

As I compiled the study data, I became fascinated with the diversity of their perceptions. One woman told me diat she missed her husband but enjoyed living alone because she could eat cereal for dinner every night. But not all interviews were so positive: one woman told me she loathed her home's quiet and often played three TVs at once to avoid facing the solitude.

However, less than 25 percent of participants indicated more than low levels of loneliness, as measured by the UCLA Scale of Loneliness ( por tfolio/uclalone. html). The sample showed tremendous heterogeneity in loneliness. What was different about the women who were resilient to loneliness?

The Importance of Friendship

My original hypothesis supposed that a lack of friends would be more important as a predictor of loneliness for women who did not have family nearby than for those who did.

However, friends turned out to be more important for older adult women living alone than I had thought, regardless of these elders' proximity to family. Women who reported having close friends living within 50 miles said they were more important in preventing loneliness than was their family- whether or not the women's family lived locally. The number of family members living within 50 miles was not a significant predictor of loneliness or the lack thereof.

According to a 2009 article in The New York Times, older people prefer "intimacy at a distance" with their families. …