The notion of precariousness among older adults living alone in the U.S.

This paper argues that older adults living alone in the U.S. face a set of unique challenges, as they are likely to experience a sense of precariousness. The term precariousness points to an intrinsic sense of instability and insecurity stemming from a lack of, or difficulty to, access essential resources. During a two-year ethnography of 47 older solo dwellers, this term captured one of the distinctive traits of the experience of living alone in older age in the U.S. The findings from semi-structured interviews and participant observation highlight the emergence of the notion of precariousness along three levels of analysis. First, on the micro and subjective level of analysis, older solo dwellers may struggle to perform the chores related to their household as they may deal with a failing body, faltering memory, and fixed if not shrinking income. Second, on the meso and institutional level of analysis, older adults living alone need to navigate the complex, scattered, and ever-changing landscape of services and understand their eligibility criteria, accessibility, fees, and conditions. At the same time they may have to deal with family issues. Finally, the macro level examines the pressure on older solo dwellers of a prevalent ideology that prizes independent behaviors and personal responsibility. In conclusion, the notion of precariousness illustrates the unique position of older adults living alone as they face different type of challenges on a micro, meso, and macro dimension. The paper ends with an invitation to create social policies that accommodate the needs of a growing number of older adults living alone.

– Elena Portacolone

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