Are we alone? Certainly, here on earth, we're not. We're aging among a cohort that numbers the largest this nation has seen and we're plugged into one another in multiple ways through computers, cell phones, and public cameras. Yet, you might wonder, are we really in touch or quietly alone with our devices? In fact, we're living alone in record numbers that increase dramatically as we age. Are we alone in the universe? NASA may soon let us know. Just as we once thought the earth was flat, we might discover that we're not alone here on earth... or are we?
If you're over 65 there's a good chance that whether you feel alone or not you're living alone. Nationally, 43% of age 65+ households and 52% of age 75+ households are occupied by just one person. "In the past, when living alone might have been a short-term condition, for many it is now a long-term situation, the result of a number of broad demographic and economic forces at work over the past half century..." writes George Masnick, a senior research fellow of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. Does it seem at all ironic that, among record numbers growing older, 11 million people 65+ are choosing to live alone ---more than any time since the mid nineteenth century?
There are benefits to solitude. Cultivating peace with aloneness can be very healthy as Dr Abigail Brenner explains to Psychology Today. She writes that comfort with oneself, alone, can be the "cornerstone for your development and growth as a human being." Time alone can help us understand what we want in life, give us valuable introspective time, and afford us personal freedom. For some, learning to be alone is an important life pursuit.
Yet, how can we ever really be alone in such a connected world? Psychologist and author Sherry Turkle says that's too easy. Describing the many ways texting occurs in meetings, classes, even funerals, she explains in the TED talk below, "We remove ourselves from our grief or our reverie and we go into our phones...I think we're setting ourselves up for trouble. Trouble certainly in how we relate to each other but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves...we're getting used to a new way of being alone together."
To illustrate her thesis Turkle tells the story of a 50 year old businessman that, "feels he doesn't have colleagues anymore at work. When he goes to work he doesn't stop by to talk to anybody, he doesn't call and he doesn't want to interrupt his colleagues because he says they're too busy on their email. But then he stops himself and says, you know I'm not telling you the truth. I'm the one who doesn't want to be interrupted. I think I should want you but actually I'd rather just do things on my Blackberry." Being alone is complicated.
Not everyone is having a romance with their devices or feeling the conflict of alone or together. In fact, the older you are the less likely you are to have devices. Device aps and telecare technology can help us as we age but, if Turkle is right, devices give us support only if we use them wisely. Like the hidden isolating power of our devices I believe that aging alone has a similar unintended long term effect. We may be intentional about living alone in the beginning or may accept that outcome, if it's thrust on us, but the experience changes over time, draws us in, and suddenly we realize we're living a single lifestyle with new vulnerability to isolation.
Years pass. We may be involved with a job, volunteer program, or group experience. Then life changes. Maybe a friend we'd relied on moves or a group we belong to disbands. We have a change in income or a health setback. It's easy to get disconnected and, for many people, much harder to reach out again. Periods of isolation can lead to greater physical and mental health challenges, faster cognitive decline, depression and earlier mortality.
"The dangerous side of...living alone," Pew Charitable Trust reports, "was illustrated in Chicago in 1995, when about 750 people died during a heat wave, many of them elderly poor residents who could not afford air conditioning and did not open their windows or sleep outside for fear of crime." How many of those people do you think considered a future of worsening physical limitations or a day when heat would overcome them? Not many consider becoming vulnerable or old. So, in the beginning, we have only minor concerns about living alone. We may not feel alone, we may intend to live alone but at some point, disconnection slides into our lives and then we see that we are alone--- with or without devices.
In 2015 NASA's Kepler mission, designed to look for intelligent life, discovered an earth sized planet, the first in the Universe's habitable zone, 1400 light years away. Is there intelligent life out there? Increasingly Americans say, "yes." An interesting study last year found that a majority of Americans over the age of 45 and a near majority over 65 believe there is intelligent extra-terrestrial life. Scientists said as much in 2014 testimony to Congress as Forbes magazine reported, “'It is not hyperbolic to suggest that scientists could very well discover extraterrestrial intelligence within two decades’ time or less, given resources to conduct the search,' Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, said in testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology." After that, the national conversation quickly turned from "Is there intelligent life?" to "When will we locate intelligent life?" to "Do we really want to know if we're not alone in the Universe?" And that's what I'm talking about. Our adoption of devices in our lives, our decision to live alone, or our search for intelligent life can change quickly into something we didn't expect.
Are we or are we not alone? Do we reach out to friends and coworkers but feel more comfortable retreating into our devices? There's no app to help us step back from our smartphones and evaluate our lives and there's no instinct that kicks in to alert us that living alone is becoming a potentially isolating life long habit. There's no guarantee what we'll find in our search for intelligent life. What we do know is that unintended consequences spring from good intentions and living alone can lead to being alone. Reach out. Connect. We're surrounded by millions of interesting people here on Earth and maybe ...1400 light years away too!
Update Jan 2018: This Bloomberg article profiles the upward trend of older adults living alone.