The recent discovery that a Kettering man was living alone in failing health as another man’s body lie in the house for years is an extreme example but illustrates how older Americans sometimes become invisible within plain sight of neighbors and away from families.
“Good or bad, one of the realities is that as someone ages, your circle of friends tends to shrink. And we’re seeing that more and more with increased longevity of individuals …,” said Douglas McGarry, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging.
People like Denny Berry, 83, the Kettering home’s owner, drift toward isolation, fall away from acquaintances and family and through society’s safety nets.
More elderly, more living alone
In 1950, only 10 percent of Americans over the age of 65 lived alone. Today, almost a third do. And for those 85 and older, the figure rises to about half.
Longer lifespans coupled with divorce and smaller family sizes have increased the likelihood of living single during later years, said McGarry. His nonprofit agency works to keep older adults in their homes in Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Logan, Miami, Montgomery, Preble and Shelby counties.
A vast majority of senior citizens remain connected to society and lead active lives, McGarry said.
“We tend to focus on this one (Kettering) case and not enough on all of the successes out there,” said McGarry. “Literally, there are thousands of people out there who are successfully living by themselves, engaged in their community.”
Estrangement from children is cited as factor in some cases and may have played a role in the recent Kettering case. But a family split is typically not why older parents live alone, statistics show.
Despite a common misperception, it’s not that children’s loyalty to parents is waning, it’s that about 90 percent of older Americans choose to age on their own, according to a 2013 Council on Contemporary Families study.
‘I don’t have anyone’
But for some like Kathleen Carver, there’s little choice but to live alone. The retired schoolteacher has no children and a lone surviving sibling lives many states away.
“I’m the only one in my family. I don’t have anyone really close,” said Carver, 83, who moved to Fairborn in 2010 to be with a sister, who since died.
Carver is hardly wanting for community, though, finding friends at her older adult apartment building.
“It makes it nice because you have your own apartment, and yet you have neighbors that are close you’ve made friends with that kind of check on you,” said Carver, who spent her career teaching music in Houston.
She also made a new “family” at the Fairborn Senior Center, which also provides a number of government services.
On any given day, Carver has multiple people checking up on her: those from her church, a housekeeper hired through the senior center, her friends in a dominoes group, not to mention the Happy Hookers, her knitting and crocheting circle.
“I would be kind of lost,” Carver said of living without all the supports – particularly those provided by the Fairborn Senior Center.
Last year, the center assisted 3,000 seniors in the Fairborn area either through transportation, outreach, homemaking or activities, said Executive Director Ellen Slone-Farthing.
“A lot of the seniors here, either their families are not engaged with them or their families don’t live around here, so we become their family,” she said.
About 28 percent of seniors age 65 and older live alone, according to Census Bureau data. In Montgomery County the number is nearly a third. But that’s not necessarily cause for alarm, McGarry said.
“Just because someone lives alone, that’s not a bad thing. If you’re independent, a lot of people enjoy living by themselves and being very private,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s kind of almost incumbent upon that individual to think out farther then just next week, next month – but look into the future and say, ‘What are my options?’ ‘What happens if I get sick? What happens if I can’t drive anymore? Who can take me to the doctor?’ – to plan the next stage of your life.”
Because of a lack of standardized state reporting, its unclear exactly how many older Ohioans live alone but are on the knife-edge of peril, said Emily Muttillo, applied research fellow at the Center for Community Solutions. But research by the Cleveland-based nonpartisan think tank suggests the number is concerning.
Self-neglect was the most commonly reported type of elder abuse — above physical, sexual or financial — to the state’s Adult Protective Services, according to a study of seven Ohio counties published in June by the center.
“People have self-neglected to the point where they have passed away without anybody realizing it or had become so sick that it had become a crisis,” said Emily Muttillo, Center for Community Solutions applied research fellow.
While the study did not include area counties, the state’s three largest counties were examined along with four others.
“We know that it is happening in those seven counties and can pretty much assume it’s probably the most reported type of elder abuse across our state,” Muttillo said.
Because self-abuse doesn’t implicate others, however, it may be reported more often, she said.
Planning for care
Ann Foster of Fairborn said she’s studying now for the next phase of her life.
“I have a book I got recently about what to do when you get older, long-term care and that kind of thing,” she said. “I’ve also been detail-oriented. Then you add 20 years in the Air Force, you kind of know how to plan things.”
The 78-year-old has few living relatives beyond cousins in Springfield.
“One will be in charge when it’s time for me to join my parents in the cemetery,” Foster said.
But she’s not resting there yet, or anywhere.
Active in her church, Foster also helps train service dogs at 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia, is a member of Fairborn Area Historical Society and the Fairborn Veterans Memorial committee as well as historian for her American Legion Post. And she still wants to take dulcimer lessons.
“Maybe because of my service time, I’m always involved,” said Foster during a break from a group yoga class last week.
‘Loneliness is a disease’
As Foster and other older adults work to keep their minds and bodies engaged and healthy, isolation can have the opposite effect, McGarry said.
“Bad things can happen if you lose contact,” he said. “Loneliness is a disease and it can be as deadly as a heart condition or cancer.”
A number of studies show isolation can have far-reaching negative effects, diminishing mental health and increasing the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Studies in 2010 suggest the risk factor is equal to smoking and alcohol consumption and could be greater threat to health than obesity.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, presented a compendium of the stark findings at last year’s American Psychological Association convention.
“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment,” Holt-Lunstad said. “Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”
Communicate before a crisis
Slone-Farthing said resources are available locally to enhance the lives of those living alone with recreation activities, homemaking assistance and transportation. But it may come to the point people can no longer care for themselves and Adult Protective Services must be called.
“If they don’t seem to want to get out of their homes, something’s happened,” she said.
But adults remain free to make their own decisions until a probate judge says otherwise, McGarry said.
“It’s not like when you’re dealing with children,” he said “With an older person, you can’t do that. Even though it may not be in their best interest to live alone or isolate themselves, unless they have been adjudicated to be incapable of making decisions for themselves, services cannot be forced upon them.”
Despite the myriad avenues to connect via phone, text, email and social media, the lines of communication are often frayed on both sides, McGarry said.
“Reach out and talk to people. Talk to your neighbor, your family, your friends, your grandchildren, your nieces, your nephews. And do it before there is a crisis, rather than after.”