older woman looking out the window

Living Alone Can Be Hazardous for Senior Health

April 1, 2024

The number of American adults who are living alone is increasing drastically. In 2020, approximately 27% of people aged 60 and older were living alone, according to the Pew Research Center. Nearly 50% of women over 75 live alone and are increasingly socially isolated. 

Adding to issues of loneliness, our minds and bodies may lose a step or two as we age. Physically, we become more fragile and less mobile. Memory decline and cognitive impairment can make everyday tasks more difficult. 42% of seniors with memory decline need help with household tasks, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

For seniors living alone, this can make them especially vulnerable to accidents and hazards in or around the home. Additionally, the fear of not being able to do things independently can take a toll on a senior’s mental health and self-esteem. For that reason, it can be helpful to make living alone a collaborative experience between seniors and their loved ones. We sat down with Mark Nathanson, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at Columbia, for tips on setting seniors up for success.

Falling, Showering, Cooking—Oh My!

One of the most significant hazards for seniors living alone is tripping and falling. According to the CDC, about one in four seniors— more than 14 million people— fall each year, causing hip fractures, broken bones, and traumatic brain injuries. These injuries cause 3 million trips to the emergency room every year.

“Make it a priority to go through your home or apartment looking for ways to reduce excess disability. Use night lights, get rid of those worn scatter rugs, and clear the hallways. Falling is a major source of chronic disability and can also lead to worsening isolation due to fear of going outside,” explains Dr. Nathanson.

Difficulty with walking or balance, muscle weaknesses, or vision problems that make it harder to see obstacles can contribute to fall risks for seniors.

To help prevent falls, it’s essential to:

  • Keep walkways clear and well-lit. 
  • Remove any rugs or other items that could cause someone to trip.  
  • Carpeting helps as long as it is securely flattened, as slippery floors with hard surfaces can make landing from falls more serious. 
  • Wear non-slip shoes and use a cane or walker to help maintain balance. 
  • Remove clutter—from piles of papers and magazines to excess furniture and knick-knacks—which can be a major tripping or bumping hazard for seniors living alone. 
  • Help your senior organize, sort, donate, store, or discard any unnecessary objects to help make moving around easier with plenty of space to maneuver.

Although falls can occur anywhere, the bathroom can be incredibly slippery. To prevent falls in the bathroom, install grab bars or handrails near the shower and toilet. Non-slip mats should also be placed on the bathroom floor to prevent slipping. Investing in a sturdy shower chair with non-slip feet can also be helpful.

Seniors also need to be mindful of cooking accidents, such as burns, cuts, and fires. There are some safety things you can help your senior do in the kitchen, including:

  • Make sure the kitchen is well-organized and all cooking utensils and appliances are in good working order. 
  • Use timers as a reminder when food is cooking on the stove, never leave the stove unattended, and remain in the kitchen when cooking.
  • Avoid loose clothing or long sleeves while cooking. 
  • Make sure there is a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and that it is easily accessible and easy to use.
  • Preparing and freezing meals can save time and energy, and slow or pressure cookers can make cooking more manageable with less effort.

Keep it Simple

Another way to make tasks more accessible is to simplify everyday routines. For example, using a pill dispenser can be helpful for keeping track of medication and making sure the proper dosage is taken at the correct time. Also, clearly label medications with large lettering and write out the directions so there’s less room for confusion.

Assistive technology can also be a game-changer for seniors living alone. Smart home devices, such as voice-activated assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, can assist with everyday tasks such as making phone calls or setting reminders. Medical alert systems can be helpful in cases of emergency. They allow seniors to call for help quickly and easily, even if they can’t reach a phone.

“Learning to feel comfortable asking for help is easier said than done, as we all want to maintain autonomy as we age. Accepting assistance with cleaning chores and companionship are good ways to stay in the community, says Dr. Nathanson.

Staying Connected, Engaged, and Healthy

For many seniors, staying mentally and physically healthy isn’t much different than it is for younger folks. Regular exercise can improve mobility, balance, and overall health. Walking, yoga, and swimming are low-impact activities on the body, which are especially helpful for seniors as they minimize the risk of injury. Seniors living alone may face mental health challenges as well, so it is important to make sure to maintain a sense of connection. Regular phone calls or video chats with friends and family can help with feelings of loneliness, but beyond that joining a community group, social group, exercise class, or joining online forums can also provide opportunities for social interaction. Meditation or deep breathing exercises can help reduce stress and promote emotional well-being.

Social isolation and loneliness can be devastating to quality of life and physical and mental decline. Stay engaged with family, make an extra effort to communicate by phone, or learn to use computer technology to interact with friends and family. Join up with social groups, senior centers, educational opportunities, and places for exercise and recreation. Volunteer work is another good way to improve your sense of self-worth and importance in the world, says Dr. Nathanson.

Living alone as a senior can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience, but taking steps to stay safe and healthy is essential. The hope is to enjoy all the benefits of aging in place without sacrificing well-being. Remember, starting a safer and healthier life is never too late. 


Mark Nathanson, MD, is a geriatric psychiatrist at Columbia.