The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

In a Mess—Growing Old Alone

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

When physicians want to gauge the health of a patient, they frequently take his temperature or measure his blood pressure. But public-health officials realize that they can often assess a person’s health by determining the orderliness or messiness of his physical surroundings. People who live in clean and orderly environments are decidedly less vulnerable to physical and even mental illness than people who live in squalor. Not surprisingly, household configuration predicts household orderliness: a new study of older Americans concludes that those living with a spouse are most likely to live in a protectively ordered and clean environment, while those living without a spouse are most likely to live in the kind of messy and dirty environment that exposes them to health risks.

Completed by Erin York Cornwell of Cornell University, this new study carefully analyzes “the distribution and social correlates of living conditions among older adults.” Professor Cornwell’s motivation for conducting this analysis springs from her realization that “living conditions can promote health, enhance coping, and reduce disablement—but they can also create stress and increase risks of illness, accidents, and decline.” More specifically, Cornwell explains that “features of the interior living environment such as clutter, lack of cleanliness, and odors” can—just like “dwelling deficiencies like plumbing or electrical problems”—prove “consequential for daily life, health, and well-being.” Elaborating on the issue, Cornwell points out that “poor ventilation and a lack of cleanliness expose residents to toxins, bacteria, and allergens that can cause respiratory and infectious diseases,” that  “clutter may impair mobility and increase the risk of falls and other accidents,” and that  “noise and odors can cause stress and disrupt sleep.” “Collectively, “she sums up, “these conditions heighten risks of morbidity and mortality.”

To assess the relationship between living conditions and the social characteristics of older Americans living in those conditions, Professor Cornwell scrutinizes data collected in 2005-2006 from a nationally representative sample of 3,005 individuals ages 57 to 85. Cornwell pores over these data, seeking to identify which older Americans are most likely to live in “risky or stressful physical and ambient living conditions including structural disrepair, clutter, lack of cleanliness, noise, and odor.”

The evidence that Cornwell surveys clearly indicates that “older adults who live with a spouse have the lowest disorder ratings across all of the living arrangement categories.” Accordingly, “disorder is more prevalent among respondents living alone”—especially men.

The data also reveal that older Americans who “reside with someone who is not a spouse or child are . . . likely to endure more stressful or risky living conditions” than are older Americans who live with a spouse. Indeed, Cornwell suggests that in such “non-nuclear households” what emerges are “less clear social roles, lower levels of support and control, and more distant relationships” than are found in nuclear households—“all of which may weaken cooperation around household tasks.”

To be sure, “partnered older adults who reside with a child [also] have more disordered living conditions” than do peers who live with just a spouse, probably, Cornwell reasons, because “this household composition may result from financial strain or caregiving needs that typically drive elderly parents to co-reside with their adult children.” Still, Cornwell interprets the overall pattern in the context of earlier research indicating that “married couples living alone or with children are particularly advantaged, enjoying lower rates of functional impairment and better self-rated health” than are found among peers living in other household arrangements.

As she examines the overall pattern evident in her data, Cornwell regards it as “good news” that the lowest household disorder is found among older Americans living with a spouse—after all, she points out, “over half of non-institutionalized adults over the age of 65 reside with a spouse.”

But Cornwell’s good news may not look so good in the years ahead. U.S. Census officials indicate that—in our era of low marriage rates and high divorce rates—the number of adults living with a spouse is plummeting. Whereas 71% of all adults (age 18 and over) lived with a spouse in 1967, only 51% of adults lived with a spouse in 2014. It would appear that unless Americans can rediscover the way to the marriage chapel and can start avoiding the divorce court, a great many men and women will spend their later years surrounded by health-threatening clutter and trash.

(Erin York Cornwell, “Social Resources and Disordered Living Conditions: Evidence from a National Sample of Community-Residing Older Adults,” Journal of Aging Research 36.4 [2014]: 399-430.)