Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
×
Home

The myth of independence for older Americans living alone in the Bay Area of San Francisco: a critical reflection

  • ELENA PORTACOLONE (a1)
Abstract

Remaining at home in older age is generally considered a sign of independence and therefore an important achievement. More than five million Americans aged over 75 years live alone, a number that is destined to increase thanks to advances in longevity. Living alone can allow the expression of one's preferences, but it can also bring out hardships hardly visible to outsiders, especially in an individualistic society such as the United States of America that rewards self-sufficiency. According to the sociologist Rose, in neo-liberal societies citizens have a duty to be free, self-reliant and independent. In this paper, Rose's theory and the political economy perspective serve as frameworks by which to examine how discourses around independence are translated in the experiences of 22 older adults aged over 75 living at home alone in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Participant observation and 41 in-depth interviews from 2006 to 2010 illustrate how being independent can be an essential component of individual identities. The informants' narratives shed light on the impact of policies that facilitate or regulate the moral imperative of independence. The findings underline the need to assess how discourses around independence are translated in minority populations, to promote studies and initiatives on interdependence, and to encourage international comparisons on living alone in older age.

Copyright
Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Elena Portacolone, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, University of California, San Francisco, 3333 California St., #LHts-455, San Francisco, CA 94143, USA. E-mail: Elena.Portacolone@ucsf.edu
References
Hide All
AARP 2009. Providing More Long-term Support and Services at Home: Why it's Critical for Health Care Reform. Fact Sheet, AARP Public Policy Institute, Washington DC.
Agich, G. J. 2003. Dependence and Autonomy in Old Age: An Ethical Framework for Long-term Care. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Baltes, M. M. 1996. The Many Faces of Dependency in Old Age. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Becker, G. 1994. The oldest old: autonomy in the face of frailty. Journal of Aging Studies, 8, 1, 5976.
Bellah, R. 1996 [1985]. The Habits of the Heart. University of California Press, Berkeley, California.
Breheny, M. and Stephens, C. 2009. ‘I sort of pay back in my own little way’: managing independence and social connectedness through reciprocity. Ageing and Society, 29, 8, 1295–313.
Bureau of the Census 2006. American Community Survey 2006. Bureau of the Census, Department of Commerce, Washington DC.
Butler, R. N. 2008. The Longevity Revolution. Public Affairs, New York.
Coffey, A. and Atkinson, P. 1996. Making Sense of Qualitative Data: Complementary Research Strategies. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.
Cohen, L. 1998. No Aging in India. University of California Press, Berkeley, California.
Condeluci, A. 1995. Interdependence: The Route to Community. St. Lucie Press, Boca Raton, Florida.
Cordingley, L. and Webb, C. 1997. Independence and aging. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 7, 2, 137–46.
Daas, V., Kleinman, A., Ramphele, M. and Reynolds, P. (eds)2000. Violence and Subjectivity. University of California Press, Berkeley, California.
Dannefer, D. 2003. Cumulative advantage/disadvantage and the life course: cross-fertilizing age and social science theory. Journal of Gerontology, 58B, 6, S327–37.
Davidson, K. 2002. Gender differences in new partnership choices and constraints for older widows and widowers. Ageing International, 27, 4, 4360.
Davidson, K. 2009. Flying solo in old age. In Vincent, J., Phillipson, C. and Downs, M. (eds), The Futures of Old Age. Sage, London, 172–9.
Deevey, S. 1990. Older lesbian women: an invisible minority. Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 16, 5, 35–9.
Demakakos, P. 2008. Being Socially Excluded and Living Alone in Old Age: Findings from the English Longitudinal Studies of Aging. Age Concern Policy Unit, London.
Denzin, N. 1989. Interpretive Interactionism. Sage, Newbury Park, California.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. S. (eds)1998. Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.
Estes, C. L. 1979. The Aging Enterprise. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Estes, C., Biggs, S. and Phillipson, C. 2004. Social Theory, Social Policy and Ageing. Open University Press, London.
Fine, M. and Glendinning, C. 2005. Dependence, independence or interdependence? Revisiting the concept of ‘care’ and ‘dependency’. Ageing & Society, 25, 4, 601–21.
Fineman, M. A. 2004. The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency. New Press, New York.
Foucault, M. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. Pantheon, New York.
Foucault, M. 1988. Technologies of the self. In Martin, L., Gutman, H. and Hutton, P. (eds), Technologies of the Self. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1649.
Fraser, N. 1989. Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Polity, Cambridge.
Fraser, N. and Gordon, L. 1994. ‘Dependency’ demystified: inscriptions of power in a keyword of the welfare state. Social Politics, Spring, 4–31.
Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic, New York.
Gibson, H. 2000. Loneliness in Later Life. St. Martin's, New York.
Gignac, M. A. M., Cott, C. and Badley, E. M. 2000. Adaptation to chronic illness and disability and its relationship to perceptions of independence and dependence. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 55B, 6, 362–72.
Gurley, J., Lum, N., Sande, M., Lo, B. and Katz, M. 1996. Persons found in their homes helpless or dead. New England Journal of Medicine, 334, 26, 1710–16.
Jensen, D. 2006. Community Needs Assessment. Department of Aging and Adult Services, San Francisco Human Services Agency Planning Unit, San Francisco, California.
Katz, S. and Laliberte-Rudman, D. 2005. Exemplars of retirement: identity and agency between lifestyle and social movement. In Katz, S. (ed.), Cultural Aging. Broadview, Peterborough, Ontario, 140–60.
Kaufman, S. and Becker, G. 1986. Stroke: healthcare on the periphery. Social Science and Medicine, 22, 9, 983–9.
Kehoe, M. 1986. Lesbians over 65: a triply invisible minority. Journal of Homosexuality, 12, 3, 139–52.
Kleinman, A. 2000. The violence of everyday life: the multiple forms and dynamics of social violence. In Das, V., Kleinman, A., Ramphele, M. and Reynolds, P. (eds), Violence and Subjectivity. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 226–41.
Klinenberg, E. 2002. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago University Press, Chicago.
Klinenberg, E. 2008. Going solo: living alone in America. In Colloquium at Stanford University, Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. Palo Alto, California.
Kramarow, E. 1995. The elderly who live alone in the United States: historical perspectives on household change. Demography, 32, 3, 335–52.
Kuhn, M. 1986. Social and political goals for an ageing society. In Phillipson, C., Bernard, M. and Strang, P. (eds), Dependency and Interdependency in Old Age. Croom Helm, London, viii–ix.
Lennox Kail, B., Quadagno, J. and Reid Keene, J. 2009. The political economy perspective on aging. In Bengtson, V. L., Silverstein, M., Putney, N. and Gans, D. (eds), Handbook of Theories of Aging. Springer Publishing Company, New York, 555–71.
Loewy, E. H. 1993. Freedom and Community: The Ethics of Interdependence. State University of New York Press, New York.
Mack, R., Salmoni, A., Viverais-Dressler, G., Porter, E. and Garg, R. 1997. Perceived risk to independent living: the views of older community-dwelling adults. The Gerontologist, 37, 6, 729–36.
McCarthy, H. and Thomas, G. 2004. Home Alone: Combating Isolation with Older Housebound People. Demos, London.
McKeown, R., Cuffe, S. and Schulz, R. 2006. US suicide rates by age group, 1970–2002: an examination of recent trends. American Journal of Public Health, 96, 10, 1744–51.
Minkler, M. and Estes, C. L. (eds)1984. Readings in the Political Economy of Aging. Baywood, Farmingdale, New York.
Minkler, M. and Estes, C. L. (eds)1991. Critical Perspectives on Aging: The Political and Moral Economy of Growing Old. Baywood, Amityville, New York.
Minkler, M. and Estes, C. L. 1999. Critical Gerontology: Perspectives from Political and Moral Economy. Baywood, Amityville, New York.
Mish, F. C. 2003. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Springfield, Massachusetts.
Moore, A. and Stratton, D. 2002. Resilient Widowers. Springer Publishing Company, New York.
Munnichs, J. M. A. and van den Heuvel, W. J. A. (eds)1976. Dependency or Interdependency in Old Age. Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.
Ogg, J. 2003. Living Alone in Later Life. Institute of Community Studies, London.
Patton, M. Q. 2002. Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.
Peterson, W. A. and Quadagno, J. (eds)1985. Social Bonds in Later Life: Aging and Interdependence. Sage, Beverly Hills, California.
Phillipson, C. 1982. Capitalism and the Construction of Old Age. Macmillan, London.
Phillipson, C. 1999. The social construction of retirement. In Minkler, M. and Estes, C. L. (eds), Critical Gerontology: Perspectives from Political and Moral Economy. Baywood, Amityville, New York, 315–25.
Phillipson, C. 2008. Authoring aging: personal and social constructions. Journal of Aging Studies, 22, 2, 163–8.
Phillipson, C. 2010. Ageing and urban society: growing old in the ‘century of the city’. In Dannefer, D. and Phillipson, C. (eds), Handbook of Social Gerontology. Sage, London, 597606.
Phillipson, C., Bernard, M. and Strang, P. (eds)1986. Dependency and Interdependency in Old Age. Croom Helm, London.
Plath, D. 2007. Independence in old age: the route to social exclusion? British Journal of Social Work, 38, 7, 117.
Rabinow, P. and Rose, N. (eds)1994. The Essential Foucault: Selections from the Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984. New Press, New York.
Raeff, C. 2006. Always Separate, Always Connected. Lawrence Erlbaum, London.
Robertson, A. 1997. Beyond apocalyptic demography: towards a moral economy of interdependence. Ageing & Society, 17, 4, 425–46.
Ronald, R. 2009. Home alone: the individualization of young, urban Japanese singles. Environment and Planning 41, 12, 2836–54.
Rose, N. 1999. Powers of Freedom. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Rowles, G. 1993. Evolving images of place in aging and ‘aging in place’. Generations, 17, 2, 6570.
Rubinstein, R. 1986. Singular Paths: Old Men Living Alone. Columbia University Press, New York.
Rubinstein, R. (ed.)1987. In-depth Interviewing and the Structure of its Insights. Springer Publishing Company, New York.
Rubinstein, R., Kilbride, J. and Nagy, S. 1992. Elders Living Alone: Frailty and the Perception of Choice. Aldine De Gruyer, New York.
Rubinstein, R., Lubben, J. and Mintzer, J. 1994. Social isolation and social support: an applied perspective. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 13, 1, 5872.
Rudman, D. L. 2006. Shaping the active, autonomous, and responsible modern retiree: an analysis of discursive technologies and their links with neo-liberal political rationality. Ageing & Society, 26, 2, 181201.
Sassen, S. 2000. New frontiers facing urban sociology at the millennium. British Journal of Sociology, 51, 1, 143–59.
Schaie, K. W., Wahl, H.-W., Mollenkopf, H. and Oswald, F. 2003. Aging Independently: Living Arrangements and Mobility. Springer Publishing Company, New York.
Scheper-Hughes, N. 1992. Death Without Weeping. California University Press, Berkeley.
Secker, J., Hill, R., Villeneau, L. and Parkman, S. 2003. Promoting independence: but promoting what and how? Ageing & Society, 23, 3, 375–91.
Sixsmith, A. 1986. Independence and home in later life. In Phillipson, C. (ed.), Dependency and Interdependency in Old Age. Croom Helm, London, 338–47.
Smith, J., Braunack-Mayer, A., Wittert, G. and Warin, M. 2007. ‘I've been independent for so damn long!’ Independence, masculinity and aging in a help seeking context. Journal of Aging Studies, 21, 4, 325–35.
Stephenson, P., Wolfe, N. and Coughlan, R. 1999. A methodological discourse on gender, independence, and frailty: applied dimensions of identity construction in old age. Journal of Aging Studies, 13, 4, 391401.
Townsend, P. 1981. The structured dependency of the elderly: a creation of social policy in the twentieth century. Ageing & Society, 1, 1, 5–28.
Triandis, H. C., Bontempo, R. and Villareal, M. J. 1988. Individualism and collectivism: cross-cultural perspectives on self-ingroup relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 2, 323–38.
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) 2006. Bulletin of Housing Statistics for Europe and North America 2006. UNECE, Geneva.
Wacquant, L. 2008. Urban Outcasts. Polity, Cambridge.
Walker, A. 1981. Towards a political economy of old age. Ageing & Society, 1, 1, 7394.
Wallace, S. P. and Smith, S. 2009. Half a Million Older Californians Living Alone Unable to Make Ends Meet. Center for Health Policy Research Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ageing & Society
  • ISSN: 0144-686X
  • EISSN: 1469-1779
  • URL: /core/journals/ageing-and-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
×

Keywords

Metrics

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed