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Regular version of the site

Living Alone

What it means for pensioners


Approximately one-fourth of older Russians live alone. Their sense of well-being and the factors contributing to it were the subject of a nearly quarter-century study that drew on data gathered by HSE-RLMS researchers.

What the numbers say

Researchers focused on individuals living alone, without families or partners, and who were past working age. At the time of the study, this included women aged 55 and older and men aged 60 and older.

The HSE-RLMS data for 1994-2016 revealed the following:

 As many as 22.8% of Russian pensioners were living alone in 2016, and 29% of those over 65. This matches the number in the U.S., but is lower than that of Great Britain, where the figure stands at 32%;

 In Russia, nine out of 10 elderly people living alone were women, with the ratio remaining virtually unchanged for the past 25 years;

 As is true in many countries, elderly Russians living alone were less satisfied with life than their peers who lived with family members;

 The incomes of elderly individuals who live alone are 4-5% lower on average than those of their peers who live with a family member, and so they are more likely to continue working, and for a longer period of time, after they begin receiving a pension;

 Elderly people who live alone were also more prone to chronic illnesses. Over a 17-year period (2000-2016), 47% reported heart problems (as compared to 40% of those who were not alone), and 25% complained of liver ailments (versus 17% of their peers living with a family member). The overall health trend, however, was positive: the number of women who described their health as ‘bad’ declined from 54.7% in 1994 to 37.2% in 2016 — and for men, those figures fell from 36.7% to 27.5%.

The role of personal income

How the elderly living alone rated their quality of life correlated directly to their financial well-being and degree of employment.

When the crisis of 1998 led to a halving of personal incomes among this segment of the population, only 7.4% said they were satisfied with their lives. After the economic boom of the 2000s, that figure increased 5.5 times to 39% by 2013.

Later, as real incomes fell, pensioners grew again more negative about their situation. At the same time, researchers noted, a differentiation among the elderly appeared: ‘Although everyone in this group was poor in the 1990s, in 2012 the incomes of the wealthiest 10% of pensioners were 6.2 times higher than the poorest 10%.’

Satisfaction with life varied accordingly: the wealthier or more actively employed the pensioners were, the more satisfied they were with their lives. Fluctuations in GDP affect the elderly who live alone more than their family-based counterparts. And, although it was more difficult for them to find or retain work during economic crises, their employment level rebounded faster during upturns.

In 2016, approximately 16% of elderly Russians who lived alone held down jobs, while that number was 1.5 times higher — 23% — among their counterparts living with family members.

Difficulties of adaptation

Researchers divide the aging process into three periods, with each characterized by a different emotional state and degree of self-esteem:

Adaptation (60 – 66 years)
Retiring, growing accustomed to the new status. Satisfaction with life declines;

Advanced age (67 – 86 years)
Satisfaction increases (“the age paradox”) — individuals gain emotional wisdom and a different understanding of the meaning of existence, they develop psychological defenses against stress and anxiety;

Extreme old age (87+ years)
Satisfaction with life declines drastically.

Of course, all elderly people pass through these stages, but those who live alone experience the greatest difficulty adjusting. Their level of satisfaction is lower at all ages, declining significantly at the time of retirement then rising slowly over the next 20 years before dropping sharply in extreme old age.

Defenseless in society

The social well-being of the older generation differs from that of the Russian population as a whole: the elderly are less confident in the future, hold a more negative view of their economic and social status, feel more vulnerable legally, etc.  

Among pensioners, those living alone have the lowest sense of social well-being. Differences within that segment depend on various socio-demographic factors. Generally, those with vocational school or college education, with no children, in good health, and who reside in regional centres constitute the 15% that are most satisfied with their lives. At the other extreme is the 25% with, as a rule, low incomes, children, and only a general secondary education.

Given that another 35% also have a generally lower sense of social well-being, it is clear that a majority see themselves and their place in the world in less than glowing terms.

Living alone is the single greatest cause of social isolation among pensioners. The study indicates that the number of elderly people living alone in Russia is constantly increasing and that their problems affect the state of society as a whole.

Study authors:
Polina Kozyreva, Director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at HSE Institute for Social Policy; First Deputy Director of the Federal Sociological Research Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences (FSRC RAN)
Gennady Voronin, Senior Researcher, Sociology Institute, FSRC RAN 
Vladimir Zakharov, Professor, Lobachevsky University Institute of Economics and Entrepreneurship
Author: Svetlana Saltanova, February 01, 2019