Story by By Catherine E. Shoichet and Parker Leipzig, CNN, 8/5/23
Edith Heyck didn’t expect she’d be 72 years old and living alone.
“I always thought I’d be married,” she says. “I was definitely raised to be a wife, and I never imagined I’d be on my own.”
Heyck, an artist and part-time park manager in Newburyport, Massachusetts, is one of nearly 38 million adults living alone in the United States, where the share of single-person households has reached a record high, according to Census data. She’s also part of a population that experts say is likely to climb dramatically in the coming decades.
The number of older Americans living alone is on the rise. Nearly 16 million people aged 65 and older in the US lived solo in 2022, three times as many who lived alone in that age group in the 1960s. And as Baby Boomers age, that number is expected to grow even more, raising big questions about the country’s future.
There are many reasons behind this shift in our society, including the economic gains women made when they entered the workforce and changing attitudes toward marriage.
One factor fueling the rising number of seniors in solo households caught experts by surprise when they first stumbled upon the trend: a rise in divorce rates among adults over 50.
“We were just floored by our findings,” says Susan L. Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.
It’s been about a decade since Brown’s research popularized the term “gray divorce” to describe this phenomenon – something that used to be a rarity, but now has become much more common.
“Well over a third of people who are getting divorced now are over the age of 50,” Brown says. “We just can’t ignore that group anymore.”
How researchers discovered the ‘gray divorce revolution’
The surprising split of Al and Tipper Gore, who in 2010 announced their plans to divorce after 40 years of marriage, prompted Brown and a colleague to dig into the data with a question many Americans were asking: Just how common is this?
Brown wasn’t sure, but she was skeptical. “This could just be a celebrity phenomenon,” she remembers thinking.
Brown and I-Fen Lin found that from 1990 to 2010, the divorce rate for people over 50 in the United States had doubled. They dubbed it “the gray divorce revolution.”
And it’s still going strong, both for celebrities and everyday people. More recently, Bill and Melinda Gates made headlines when they announced in 2021 that they were divorcing after 27 years of marriage. North of the border, just this week Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 51, announced that he and his wife were separating.
Even though divorce rates for the overall population are declining, Brown says, “older adults are really bucking the trend.”
For adults over 65, the divorce rate is still rising.
“This means more and more people are going to be aging, probably, alone, and outside of marriage, certainly,” Brown says.
Why more people are taking this step
Susan Myres knows to some people it may sound illogical to end marriages later in life, especially when death could be looming.
But as a divorce attorney in Houston with decades of experience, she’s heard plenty of reasons from older clients who are calling it quits.
“I had one client tell me, ‘I do not want to die next to that man – I’m out,’” Myres says, noting that differing perspectives on vaccines, masks and politics during the pandemic seems to have played a role in many recent cases that have come across her desk.
“I’ve seen a pretty sharp increase in mature couples who have adult children and probably have some grandchildren,” she says.
Some older people initiating divorces feel they’ve simply drifted too far apart from their spouses, while some have suffered abuse or discovered shocking transgressions, Myres says. All of them – including some clients in their 80s – feel like any years of life they have left are too precious to spend with the wrong person.
Rather than “gray divorce,” Myres says she prefers the term “silver splitters,” because it also alludes to the silver lining of starting fresh, no matter how old you are.
Heyck says she got divorced in her 50s after her son turned 18.
“It was really more of a working relationship than a full marriage,” she says, and Heyck was emotionally ready to be on her own.
But the financial transition, she says, wasn’t easy. For years, she struggled to make ends meet, living with roommates and couch-surfing as she waited for a spot to open in income-adjusted senior housing.
“I was an artist. I lived on the edge financially. I didn’t have a 401(k) … I always thought that I would be married. That was the big surprise,” she says.
Financial difficulties after “gray divorce” are a problem Brown says she and other researchers have been studying, too.
Some people see their standard of living drop significantly – and that, coupled with the fact that poverty rates in general tend to be higher for older adults, is concerning, she says.
“They’re cutting their nest egg in half,” Brown says. “Our survey data allows us to follow people for a decade or more. We’re not seeing any evidence of significant recovery.”
‘Gray divorce’ isn’t the only reason older Americans are living alone
Some people who go through “gray divorce” remarry, and some move in with a new romantic partner or other family members. In the first couple of years after a “gray divorce,” Brown says, about 50% of people end up living alone.
But many older people who are living alone haven’t gone through “gray divorce.”
Some are widowed, and a growing share have never been married at all.
“One of the most important factors in how many people live alone is whether they can afford to,” says researcher and psychologist Bella DePaulo. “Historically, you can see with older people, once there was Social Security and Medicare and these lifelines to financial stability, then more older people chose to live alone.”
DePaulo, who’s 69 and lives in Santa Barbara, California, proudly declares that she’s been single her entire life. For years she’s been studying single people and pushing for their choices to be taken more seriously.
“There are many more of us than people realize who don’t see living single or living alone as some sort of burden, but instead embrace it as something that we really just love,” she says.
Living by yourself, she says, doesn’t mean that you’re alone or lonely.
“There’s a lot of research that shows that people who are single are more likely to stay in touch with their friends and relatives and neighbors than people who are married. … It’s exactly the opposite of the stereotype,” she says.
This trend will likely intensify as Baby Boomers age. And that raises big questions about what’s next
The share of people over 65 who are living alone has remained relatively consistent in recent years, hovering around its current level of 28%. But given the large size of the Baby Boomer generation, which includes people who range in age from 59 to 77, the overall number of older people living alone is climbing, and it’s expected to grow even more.
Experts say that could have significant consequences in communities across the country – especially if more isn’t done to provide better social services.
“Who’s going to care for them as they age is a really big question, since most are not re-partnering,” Brown says.
Markus Schafer, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor University who studies aging and health, calls it a “two-sided phenomenon.”
“A lot of people really find it appealing to have autonomy – to not have daily squabbles over how the dishwasher gets loaded or where the toothbrush goes,” he says. “On the other hand…consistently research finds that even though a lot of people fare well living alone, people who live alone report higher levels of loneliness across the board, and it’s definitely more pronounced later in life.”
Given the well-documented and significant health consequences tied to loneliness and social isolation, researchers and advocates are trying to come up with solutions to help aging Americans living alone before it’s too late.
“There’s a lot of innovation and startup money for robo-companionship – things like robotic dogs, the metaverse and artificial intelligence. This is really taking off in Japan,” Schafer says. “They’re kind of showing us what the future of aging may look like here.”
In the US, it’s clear the future of aging will involve millions more people living alone, says Jennifer Molinsky, director of the Housing an Aging Society at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Projections from the center predict that the number of single-person households headed by people over age 75 will soar in the coming years as Baby Boomers age, surpassing 14 million by 2038.
More housing options are needed so people can age safely rather than being stuck in large, single-family homes, she says.
“So many people are not safely housed, not affordably housed, not in locations that are well-served by healthcare or supports and services, who don’t have transportation. … There’s just so much need, and this needs more attention,” Molinsky says.
She found stability and joy, and she’s starting a new chapter
Heyck says she knows all too well how important affordable housing is – and how hard it is to find.
“The day I turned 62, I put my application in. It took me almost five years to get off the waiting list,” she says.
Eventually, she landed a coveted spot in a senior housing community where her rent is adjusted to match her income. And after several years of living in an apartment there, Heyck says she’s finally found the stability she’d long been seeking.
“I have a sense of security that I never had,” she says. “And I feel that my connection honestly with my community and church has given me joy and health.”
Recently, she found a new way to connect with her neighbors.
Heyck has started performing a stand-up act about her experiences.
“I’ve had enough husbands and boyfriends that I have something to say,” she quips.
“I’m a septuagenarian and I’m still dating. That always gets a good laugh.”
While she remains a romantic and keeps going on dates, even after several divorces, Heyck says the ease and excitement of living on her own the last few years has made one thing clear.
No matter who she meets, she doesn’t want to live with anyone again.