The High Cost of Growing Old Alone
Life + Money

The High Cost of Growing Old Alone

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Katrina Depriest-Dark, age 58, who is handicapped and on disability, is grateful that her 80-year-old mother moved in with her this past year to help pay half of her $886 monthly mortgage on her Richmond, Virginia home. As a single mother of now grown children, Depriest-Dark found it costly to live alone, scraping by on disability checks and paying high medical costs to treat her lupus, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. She said she tried to buy in bulk, getting her groceries at Sam's Club, but with one person, much of that food would go to waste. 

RELATED: The 50-Year-Old Intern

More Americans are living alone now than at any other point in history and one third of those 32.7 million are over 65. A rise in the divorce rate in the over 50 set, which has doubled over the past two decades, along with women outliving their spouses by five to six years, is fueling the trend, which will only grow with an aging boomer population.

The older population in 2030 is projected to double from the start of this century ― from 35 million to 72 million ― representing nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population, according to AARP. Although Medicare and Social Security are available to seniors, those programs will not be able to meet the heightened demands of the baby boomer generation and cuts to the federal deficit. 

Living on your own can be far more costly than sharing expenses like food and housing with a spouse, relative or housemate.  Single seniors who also face escalating health care costs are five times more likely to live in poverty as their married peers.

A study by The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, Living Longer on Less: The New Economic (In) Security of Seniors, found that only 31 percent of senior couples are economically secure, a number that drops to 16 percent for single seniors. "The trends are not great. They're going in the wrong direction," said Tatjana Meschede, one of the study's authors and the director of research at The Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

A National Council on Aging analysis of data from The American Community Survey shows that a senior living alone spends almost 35 percent of their income on housing, compared to 22 percent if they live with others. "There is an economy of scale when you live with two or more," says Hector Ortiz, a senior program associate for research at The National Council on Aging. While seniors with the benefit of a hefty divorce settlement or significant assets from a deceased spouse are in better shape, others ― widows, in particular ― quickly deplete their assets within a year of the loss of a spouse's income. "They can't keep up with regular expenses. It puts a big burden on those households," he says.

RELATED: The Growing Retirement Nightmare for Women

David Baxter, senior vice president of Age Wave, a research firm that specializes in the 50 plus population, expects boomers, who have transformed nearly every other life stage, to find innovative ways to address the financial challenges of senior singlehood. "We'll see new ways of living single," with an advent of more communal living that offers both care giving and opportunities for social interaction, he says.

Some single seniors are turning to roommates and other alternative living situations. One 64-year-old senior in Chicago, Bonnie Jackson, contacted a local center of National Shared Housing Resources to help her fill the two unused bedrooms in her home, and receives $500 a month for each room, giving discounts to tenants who help her run errands or change light bulbs. Another woman in her late 50s formed her own community in Silicon Valley by buying two homes in a three-house enclave and renting her second property to two other single women.

All the Single Ladies
Eric Klinenberg, a professor of Sociology at New York University and author of the recent book Going Solo, says that many older Americans, especially women, are single by choice. Many women who have spent years ministering to the health care needs of a deceased husband are concerned about reproducing that "brutal and unhealthy experience" and shun marriage, he says. Still, he says, "aging alone is especially challenging."

Women who live alone are more vulnerable than men, since they have spent less time in the workforce, pay less into Social Security, and accumulate fewer assets. Being a single woman "is a factor determining poverty in old age," says M. Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement. She says that a single person lives on 80 percent of what a couple lives on, not the 50 percent you would expect. While the poverty rate for all women ages 65 and older is 11.5 percent, that rate for single women is almost twice as high, at 19.1 percent.

In addition to food and housing, seniors are faced with mounting health care costs, as they grow frailer and need to pay for assistance. They often cannot rely on family members to care for them, as grown children may live far away or are preoccupied with careers and their own family. Sandra Timmermann, a gerontologist at the MetLife Mature Market Institute, says that tasks like rides to doctor appointments or getting groceries come at a hefty cost, $19 an hour. To make sure an older single stays safe, she says a personal emergency response system can cost $50 to install, and $15 to $35 per month to monitor. "These little things can really add up," she says.

As for Depriest-Dark, having her mother as a roommate has been a benefit, even though she's taxed with assisting in her care. "When you're on a fixed income, it's very helpful to have someone to help you with the mortgage," she says.