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


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.

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:
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Ageing & Society
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