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Illustrations by Dorothy Leung

Through years spent interviewing women about the kinds of lives they want as they age, author Vicki Larson heard a common refrain: “They really prefer to maintain their freedom and independence, even if it means they may get lonely.”

Writing about ageism, marriage, divorce, singlehood and the rise of “living apart together” relationships, Ms. Larson finds older women’s encounters with solitude enlightening. For many, living alone doesn’t equate with isolation – this following marriages that sometimes left them lonelier. Many develop deeper ties to circles of family, friends, neighbours and wider communities. Ms. Larson described some women getting “very good at being their own source of comfort and security.”

Her interviews echo a growing body of research on the inner lives of older women, who still outlive men, but remain overlooked and misunderstood, their experiences continually distorted, with unkind assumptions lingering. The woman who lives alone has been not been viewed charitably throughout history, or today. If she’s divorced or widowed, she is pitied; if she’s chosen to live alone, defying traditional scripts of marriage and family, she’s a spinster condemned to loneliness in her latter years.

Unflattering depictions are numerous in popular culture. The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby collects leftover grains of rice following a wedding and dies alone, her funeral unattended. Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham parades around her dilapidated mansion in a wedding gown after being left at the altar. The cult documentary Grey Gardens follows the Beales, a mother and daughter duo who hoard feral cats and live in squalor at the edge of the wealthy East Hampton enclave.

Much less has been conveyed about older women’s actual experiences, especially those who thrive alone.

As conversations about the so-called loneliness epidemic grew more open with the pandemic – more than a third of older adults said the crisis left them lonelier – and as much focus went to men’s loneliness and inability to maintain social ties, new research on aging women is yielding a complicated picture of a significant demographic growing rapidly in Canada.

Although public health officials have been sounding the alarm for years on myriad health problems linked to loneliness in older age – depression, dementia, cardiovascular disease, shortened lifespans, even increased risk of death during heatwaves – more thinkers are beginning to challenge the narrative, drawing sharper distinctions between living solo, social isolation and loneliness, highly personal experiences too often treated as interchangeable, especially among elders.

The Globe and Mail collected the most illuminating findings on aging women navigating aloneness today.

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Loneliness, young and old

Asked about loneliness in a 2021 report, Canadian women 65 to 75 acknowledged these feelings intensified by 67 per cent through the first nine months of the pandemic. Women 75 to 84 reported a 37 per cent loneliness surge through those early-days lockdowns.

Even so, older women consistently reported feeling less lonely than women decades their junior. Asked if they felt lonely “always or often,” women 70 and older were less likely to say this than women 15 to 34, according to 2023 data in the Canadian Social Survey.

Women 65-plus were also more likely than younger women to say they have people they can rely on, according to 2022 Statistics Canada findings. They also found their relationships more satisfying than 20-somethings did.

“Even though older women have fewer friends, their friendships are deeper,” said Ms. Larson, who wrote the 2022 book Not Too Old for That: How Women are Changing the Story of Aging.

“But there isn’t much research on later-in-life friendships, which again, points to just how much older people are ignored and dismissed.”

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The living alone myth

Even at the height of the pandemic, living alone did not substantially erode older women’s mental health, according to geriatric psychiatrist Joseph Goveas, the lead author of a 2021 American study involving more than 27,400 women, average age 83, who participated in the large-scale Women’s Health Initiative.

More damaging to older women’s mental health was having their living arrangements disrupted – a move into assisted living, or in with adult children. “It was actually a surprise to us,” said Prof. Goveas.

He and others study aging populations stress difference between loneliness, isolation and the mere act of living alone.

“Social isolation means that there is an objective lack of social contact with others,” Prof. Goveas said. “Loneliness is a subjective feeling. Some people are surrounded by loved ones but still feel so lonely – this perception of being alone. Versus the people who live alone and love the solitude, and flourish in that solitude.”

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The loneliness creep

Despite older women’s resilience, data finds that loneliness often deepens after the age of 74: “There’s a lot of loss in your older years,” said Ms. Larson.

Some 16 per cent of women 75-plus reported feeling lonely “often or always,” up from 9.8 per cent among those 65 to 74, according to 2021 figures from Statistics Canada. A study of 13,037 people, average age 74, found more than a third of unpartnered women said they were hardly participating in community activities.

Loneliness in older women is often painted as their personal failure, even though it typically stems from broader social problems, experts say.

“We can’t ignore the financial aspect. A lot of women age into poverty. Maybe you used to be social but now you’re no longer working and you barely have the resources to visit your friends,” Ms. Larson said.

As they struggle with declining health and mobility, some elders are geographically isolated in rural areas, with no transportation. Others who live in cities have grown wary after a spate of violence on public transit, with organizers seeing a dip in senior-age volunteers who are afraid to commute, according to Karen McDonald, provincial director with Healthy Aging Alberta.

Other older women grow disconnected as their time is dominated by informal caregiving for family members: “They are transitioning from being someone who’s offering care, to somebody who also needs care themselves. That’s a very difficult transition and can be lonely – being responsible for a lot while your own world might be getting smaller and your capacities might be changing,” said Kate Mulligan, senior director at the Canadian Institute for Social Prescribing.

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Greedy marriages

While data consistently finds older married couples self-reporting as the least lonely, older women who never married tend to say they’re less lonely than women who are separated, divorced or widowed.

“Never-married older people show fewer signs of stress, are more likely to enjoy living alone, and report needing less social support than the newly single,” according to sociologist Elyakim Kislev, who helmed a 2022 study on aging, marital status and loneliness across 30 countries.

It’s a finding Prof. Kislev attributes to the “greedy marriage” theory: marriages can suck up the bulk of spouses’ time and energy, weakening other bonds in their lives. Women who never marry maintain more robust social ties with friends, siblings, neighbours and their communities into older age, research has found.

“Solitude for many older singles becomes part of a way of living,” Prof. Kislev wrote. “They never used marriage as a form of self-validation. … The divorced and widowed are faced with sudden change in their life of losing a partner, and their self-perception and levels of mental health are vulnerable in the face of criticism, prejudices, or social isolation.”

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Alone together

As some long-married couples will attest, marriage is no panacea for loneliness: Nearly one in 10 Canadian women feels “always or often” lonely in their marriages or common-law relationships, according to 2021 data from the Canadian Social Survey, with 6 per cent of men saying the same.

“Just because you’re living alone doesn’t mean that you are alone. And just because you’re living with someone doesn’t mean you’re not alone. We’ve got to get past that part of the conversation,” said Kris Marsh, a sociologist and demographer whose book The Love Jones Cohort: Single and Living Alone in the Black Middle Class, was published in February.

“We’ve been conditioned from a very young age that we have to be partnered,” Prof. Marsh continued. “People end up in these relationships that are toxic, abusive, oppressive and unfulfilling because they don’t want to die alone.”

This complexity extends to widows, too: “Depending on the quality of the marriage, it isn’t necessarily that a widowed woman would feel alone or lonely,” Ms. Larson said. “She might actually feel some relief, especially if it was a bad partnership, or if she’s experienced many years of caregiving for a spouse.”

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The race factor

Examining isolation among 27,400 older women in the United States, Prof. Goveas and his co-authors found Black and Asian respondents were less likely to report suffering from loneliness than white respondents. The research team surmised this disparity might have to do with Black and Asian women’s tendency to build and maintain a wider web of social connections.

Prof. Marsh’s research echoed the finding: “I would argue this is an artifact of Black culture and the extended Black family,” she said. “There are these fictive kinships, these social families – a social auntie or a social cousin who may not have a biological connection but are still very much family.”

This helps more Black women keep loneliness at bay as they age, Prof. Marsh argued.

“Even if they do have some sense of loneliness, it’s more what I call situational loneliness, where you might be a little lonely around Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve. But there’s not this chronic kind of loneliness.”

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Illustration by Dorothy Leung

A feminist lens

In her 2022 paper “Loneliness is a Feminist Issue,” Eleanor Wilkinson argued women should pay close attention to what gets blamed for our “sweeping loneliness epidemic”: family breakdown, childbearing delays, more people choosing to live alone, greater geographic mobility.

“We see that many of these transformations arose as a result of advances made through feminism,” wrote Dr. Wilkinson, an associate professor at the University of Southampton. “Women’s right to education, paid employment, financial independence and reproductive autonomy has often been followed by falling marriage rates and declining fertility rates.”

The antidotes touted for isolation – coupled love, family, children – lead women down familiar roads. For some, it means a limiting of options, Dr. Wilkinson argued, pointing to unfulfilled wives and mothers overwhelmed by domestic drudgery, caregiving and emotional labour: “Too much closeness, too much proximity, can result in the loss of the self.”

Dr. Wilkinson asked what can be learned from women who live alone but aren’t lonely, or those who accept their loneliness. “Rather than thinking about aloneness as deficit, how might aloneness be a way to create different connections to the world, an opening, a way to live our lives otherwise?”