People seem surprised when they learn just how many Australian live alone. At the moment one in four Australian households are inhabited by only one person. And it is predicted that within a decade this will increase to on in three households.
The logical assumption is that this high percentage is mostly made up of older women. Women generally live longer than men so it stands to reason that we would have a lot of widows in their latter part of life. But it’s everyone. Across the generations the spread of ages of those living alone is high – those that have not partnered up and those that have divorced or separated as well as those that have lost their partner.
Those living alone seem to divide into two lots. There are those that assume this to be a temporary phase of life, and expect to be partnered up at some stage, and those who have no such expectations and have adjusted their lifestyle to their situation.
It seems those living alone are more content with their lives than people will attribute to them. They do, however, feel somewhat marginalised by society. People feel sorry for them and expect them to be miserable loners. They feel that they continually need to defend their circumstances against negative perceptions.
One older woman said that as much she would love to she cannot get a cat. The cliché of the crazy old woman with cats is too much for her to handle.
Society at large, they feel, is geared up towards couples and families. Advertising seldom features single person households. And specials in supermarkets are often about discounts for bulk shopping – something they have no need for (nor the space in most cases). Then there is the political mantra of “working families” making them feel non-existent, like they don’t matter.
The way they seem to adjust to living alone is twofold. Firstly, they speak of becoming comfortable in their own skin. Not feeling like there is something wrong if they spend an evening on their own. In other words, reminding themselves it’s okay. Secondly, they keep busy. They expend much effort on filling the diary with activities and appointments. They feel secure in knowing they have things to do and people to see.
When spending time at home the media plays a key role in keeping them company. Often they will have the radio or television on just for background noise. Silence can be oppressive and highlight a sense of being alone.
All those people I spoke to who live on their own concur that it is much easier to do so than ever before. Email, social media, Skype and text messaging ensures they are continuously connected to the world around them. One woman said that when she feels lonely she will send the same text message to a few people. Then she enjoys the return texts.
In a culture that is overwhelmingly civil and accepting of differences it’s interesting that so many sizeable minorities can still feel on the outer.
[First published in The Nestle Happily Healthy Project http://www.happily-healthy.com.au/living-alone-is-the-norm]