In our youth-obsessed culture, we are flooded with images flaunting the benefits of a youthful appearance and messaging that tells us younger people are more capable and innovative than older people.
Even in Pittsburgh the narrative often focuses on millennials, how their working, buying and living habits are remaking our city. But what about the rarely discussed and often dismissed growing demographic of older adults, especially those who live alone?
In Allegheny County, 17.5 percent of the population is 65 and older; that’s about 215,300 people, according to the 2016 American Community Survey.
But it’s when you zero in on the Allegheny County residents who are 75 and older that the rates of living alone grow. Nearly half of them (roughly 53,000 people) live alone, and it’s more common among women, according to the 2014 State of Aging in Allegheny County report.
Living alone puts seniors at an increased risk for social isolation, according to the report.
The problem goes beyond sitting alone in front of the television every night; research shows people who are socially connected have a lower chance of memory decline, more resistance to the common cold and even a reduced chance of a cancer reoccurring.
Many seniors and social services providers cite transportation as the No. 1 contributing factor for social isolation in Pittsburgh.
Housing is another obstacle because where we live determines what we can access. While high-rise buildings can be the more affordable housing option for seniors, they can put people in silos, preventing them from making natural connections.
The following stories highlight the challenges of living alone for two local seniors and a gerontologist.
'Don't develop an armor'
DeAnne Alberti sold thousands of homes during her 39 years as a real estate agent. Now she is determined to stay in the McCandless house she has called home for 50 years.
Alberti, 85, started in real estate when there were few women selling houses. She was initially drawn to the work because it gave her an opportunity to explore the area and look inside houses, but her ability to connect with others convinced her she found her calling. “God gave me a gift of perception,” she said.
But Alberti’s abundant optimism was confronted with a series of losses, including the death of her only child David in 2013; her response to his death left her estranged from her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. “I was in a terrible place in my mind and wanted to be alone,” she remembered, her pale green eyes filling with tears. “I was full of anger and malaise. I was ready to take my life.”
Two weeks before Easter 2014, her phone was about to be disconnected because she could no longer afford to pay the bill and she was running out of food. Alberti, emboldened by the season of renewal, decided it was time to reach out for help. A call to the North Hills Community Outreach connected her with NAMS (Northern Area Multi-Service Center) Meals on Wheels, which provides 320 meals to seniors in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh.
When the driver showed up on the doorstep of her home, “I was not even going to let them come in,” but the normally gregarious Alberti said she changed her mind “because they were so nice.”
Because she was self-employed and did not receive benefits, the $759 she receives in Social Security every month is Alberti’s only income. It is difficult on a limited budget to maintain the ranch house she shares with a dog and two cats (all rescue animals).
Alberti has received help maintaining her home from Nazareth Housing Services and Hosanna Industries, as well as her North Park Church where she was baptized in 2014.
Family tensions have healed over time. Alberti said her granddaughter paid foreclosure fees on her home and paid off the remaining mortgage. “She wants me here until I die.”
Patty Bontempo, manager for Meals on Wheels at NAMS, said most people are not aware of the needs of the ‘Greatest and Silent Generations’ — people who came of age in the middle of the last century. Many of these older adults don’t know where to ask for help and it’s not a natural inclination, Bontempo said. “Their generation did everything for themselves. It is really hard for them to ask for help.”
Alberti, who no longer drives, admits it has been hard to ask for help, but now she has advice for other older adults: “Don’t develop an armor.”
These new relationships have transformed her life and she no longer feels isolated. “It is not the food, it is the people. They are special. They care,” she said.
'Here for a purpose'
George Smith does not like to depend on others. The 90-year-old retired office manager and widower has already planned and paid for his funeral. But his instinct for organization and advance planning is not all he’s known for at the Vintage Center for Active Adults in East Liberty, an organization founded in 1973 to improve the experience of aging. Smith has earned the respect of other members for being a dedicated volunteer and has made friends with ease along the way.
He arrives at Vintage before 8 a.m. every weekday, dressed as if he was heading to his former Downtown office, to help set up and manage the canteen where members buy snacks and personal care items. On Friday mornings, Smith participates in line dancing class, but he leaves after the "Electric Slide" because he is afraid of falling.
Helen Smith, his wife of nearly 57 years, died in January 2017 after struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. He was her primary caregiver during the final months of her illness and was able to see his friends only when his daughter Deborah Murray could relieve him of his duties.
Murray admired how her mild-mannered father was determined to keep her mother at home. “It took a toll on me,” she said. “I can imagine what it did to him."
In some ways, this husband and wife were opposites. “Helen never wanted to join Vintage… She did not always want be around people,” Smith said.
Although the couple both worked at the Parker Hunter brokerage firm before retiring, they commuted separately and never had lunch together. “He did his thing, she did her thing,” Murray said.
These days Smith doesn’t mind living alone, he said. His Shadyside apartment building used to be full of older adults, but it is now home to many international students who attend nearby universities. He appreciates the respect they show him as an older adult; he believes it stems from their cultures, where elders are typically more revered than in America.
Despite an active life and a doting daughter and son, Smith acknowledges there are difficulties to growing old in an impatient world. He wishes bus drivers were more patient with riders who use canes. When he encounters an indifferent service worker, he does not hesitate to remind them, “You are going to be old one day.”
Smith would like to see healthcare providers hold a series of conversations in the community on their needs and on the value of knowing your family history. “People need to be educated on the elderly,” he said.
The recent holidays were Smith’s first without his wife. A devout Catholic, he misses Helen, but feels she is still there. Before he goes to bed each night, he blesses the urn containing her ashes with a sprinkle of holy water he keeps on hand and whispers he loves her.
“Each one of us is here for a purpose.”
Bloomfield resident Laura Poskin’s interest in intergenerational solidarity was sparked by the close relationship she enjoyed with her late grandfather Bernie Covitch. She would travel by Amtrak every other month from her home in New York City to Ebensburg, Pa., where she could spend time with her grandfather, a World War II veteran. They were both living on their own for the first time and they talked about everything. “I felt we could be really honest with each other,” she said.
Back in New York City, where she was covering red carpet affairs for People Magazine, Poskin started volunteering with DOROT’s friendly visiting program and met Arthur, an elderly man living alone. She soon realized the best part of her week was on Friday afternoons when she would visit Arthur. “I was technically volunteering, but I would always remind him he was volunteering, too. Both of us were getting so much out of it.”
Poskin started chronicling her experiences with both her grandfather and the New York City man in 2010 through a blog titled Arthur and Bernie. The blog caught the attention of AARP, which asked her to write a regular column on intergenerational solidarity.
Once her grandfather passed away, Poskin felt she wanted to learn even more about aging. She returned to school to become a gerontologist. “I want to make the world a better place to grow old,” she said.
Poskin, 34, now divides her time working as a project manager for Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh, an initiative of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Partnership for Aging, and as a project manager for the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania United for Seniors initiatives.
The Age-Friendly movement is about creating communities that are more accessible to all generations, relieving social isolation and building respect among all.
“When suddenly you can’t get outside your door and go to a coffee shop and meet new people, it is a problem for you as an older adult, but it is also a problem for me as someone who could be learning from you,” Poskin said.
In 2016, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation [JHF] launched Senior Connections, an initiative to improve the experience of aging by increasing recreational opportunities and improving services in sectors like housing and health care.
Recognizing that technology can also help to alleviate social isolation, JHF also introduced the Virtual Senior Academy last year. It’s a free interactive platform that offers classes through video conferencing. It is meant to bring seniors together who cannot or do not want to leave their homes.
Since the academy’s launch in August 2017, 150 seniors have signed up for the eight to 10 classes they offer each week. However, the barrier of access remains; Smith and Alberti, for example, cannot participate because they don’t have a computer or an Internet connection.
Two years ago, JHF surveyed 500 people ages 55 and older in Allegheny County and found 50 percent of them use digital devices and the Internet. A 2014 Pew Research Center study showed in a national survey that Internet access declines exponentially for the older age groups; 21 percent of those 80 and older had Internet at home.
JHF is currently searching for innovative ways to bridge the digital divide among older adults by encouraging computer sharing in communal settings, such as senior high rises and through home care and caregiving agencies. The foundation is working with ConnectHome, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to bring Internet services to senior high rises in the area.
Poskin is concerned about the lack of urgency on social isolation. “It is not at the top of most people’s minds until they have a family member or friend who becomes isolated because of a health problem and can’t drive anymore,” she said.
She wants to banish the stigma of aging by encouraging younger generations to embrace the ones who came before them for their knowledge and insight.
“We hate the term Silver Tsunami because it sounds like some really scary thing is going to happen,” she said, referring to the term coined to represent a rise in the median age of the U.S. workforce.
“We see it as an asset. We have so few natural growing resources. Suddenly we have all these people with career expertise and lived experience… We should be able to participate in life our whole lives.”
This story was fact-checked by Jeffrey Benzing.
Martha Rial is Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.