Today, more than a quarter of American households are home to just one person. And living alone has its perks. You can eat what you want, crank up the stereo and let your dishes pile up for days. But there's also no one to help foot the bill, and no one to turn to for reassurance when things go bump in the night.
Last year, I asked you to send in your stories about living solo. Listener Ashley Ward decided it was time to get her own place after dealing with a less-than-ideal roommate. But living alone can also be a consequence of bigger life changes. Arlene Pickett’s husband died four years ago after a long decline. She liked the freedom that came with living by herself. But when she was diagnosed with cancer, solo life just felt hard. Walid Shantur's wife moved out about eight years ago. His daughter left for college the same day. He told me last year that he'd come to embrace living alone—he found it "intoxicating." But when I checked back in with him this year, he told me that he'd met someone new, and added, "I no longer can say that living alone is pleasing and satisfying."
I caught up with everyone who talked with me last year about living alone. As you'll hear, some of them are still living alone and loving it. And some aren't.
SludgeArtist: Jack Ventimiglia, BMILabel: BWN Music
Private DetectiveArtist: Cullen Fitzpatrick, ASCAPLabel: BWN Music
Brain WreckArtist: Bijou BasilLabel: BWN Music
National WaltzingArtist: Justin Asher, ASCAPLabel: BWN Catalog
Floaty KArtist: Kenneth J Brahmstedt, BMILabel: BWN Music
When You're AwayArtist: Kenneth J Brahmstedt, BMILabel: BWN Music
Quiet SmileArtist: Cullen Fitzpatrick, ASCAPLabel: BWN Music
Live Alone and Like ItArtist: Liza Minnelli
Jen: When I moved into my place by myself, I probably spent the first few weeks in a tank top and underwear. Until it got a little bit colder, and then I’d put socks on.
This is Death, Sex & Money. The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Last year, I asked for your stories about living alone. For 37-year-old Jen in Brooklyn, living by herself…meant not always wearing pants.
Jen: It is really awesome to sit around your own apartment in as little clothes as you like to wear.
That’s just one of the perks that you told me about.
Cooking the things I want to eat, playing the music that only I enjoy listening to.
Dancing around my living room to R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Countless minutes of no interruptions.
Books stacked in a certain way on my shelf.
It is definitely a freedom that I have not had ever.
More and more Americans are living alone. The number has tripled since 1970.
And today, more than quarter of American households are home to just one person. So there are a lot of people having this experience. But we don’t often talk about it. And from your stories, it’s clear that the way we feel about living alone can be a little complicated.
The first couple months it was actually kind of hard for me to live alone, because I was so used to always living with people.
You know, everyone always said how important it was and how it’ll be a great time in my life. But I just haven't figured out why that is just yet.
Living alone near Boulder is really expensive. But it is worth every penny.
Living by yourself does mean having no one to split your bills with. But it isn’t something that only rich people are doing. In 2014, people who lived alone had a median income of about 28 thousand dollars.
When Ashley Ward moved back to LA, she decided that living alone was worth the investment. She was 30, and this was the first time she’d ever lived by herself. When we first spoke, she’d just moved in a few weeks before. And, Ashley told me, having her own place felt weird.
AW: You know when you’re little and you’re wearing your mom’s shoes? It felt like that. You don’t fill out the shoe or the apartment at all, but here you are pretending like you do.
AS: Clomping around in shoes that are too big for you.
AW: Yeah, exactly. And it feels a little bit better now. I think I’ll feel a lot better once I get a couch.
AS: You wrote in, and a line that really stuck out to me was you said, no one thinks it’s normal for a 30-year-old professional woman to be able to live alone.
AW: Yeah, that’s been the most bizarre thing.
AS: What do you mean?
AW: There’s just a weird sort of, "whoa, really?" Instead of like a, "yeah, cool."
AS: Is that because it means you have a certain amount of money?
AW: I think so. It is very expensive to live in LA, it says how much you make without saying how much you make. And I think that that’s definitely something that makes people feel inadequate, I guess?
AS: How has it changed—you’re single?
AS: Has it changed your dating life, living alone? One of the drawbacks of having roommates is your dating life is on display to other people in your apartment. That’s not the case when you live alone.
AW: No, no. I can sort of come and go and bring whomever I like. Which is—I mean I’ve only been there for a month, so it hasn’t happened. But.
AS: Do you like that idea?
AW: Yeah, I like that I can have guests and I don’t have to worry that someone else will come in and like sort of take charge of the conversation, and take charge of my guest. The guy that I lived with in Chicago would do that all the time, when I had someone over, he would come in and make the conversation all about him and his life.
AS: Like, including dates?
AW: Yeah. It was super awkward. It was really, really awkward.
That helped Ashley make the decision to live alone. And a year later, Ashley reports that she is no longer single. And...
AW: My apartment no longer feels like an empty place that I’m trying to pretend I’m grown up enough to have. I got a couch in May, so it’s a place that I like spending time now.
But for a lot of you, living alone wasn’t a choice. It was a consequence of a bigger change, often a loss. Like a death, or the end of a relationship.
WS: My name is Walid Shantur and I live alone.
Walid is 60 and has lived alone for the last eight years. A year ago, he sent in this message from Ithaca, New York.
WS: I left home when I was 17 and joined the Navy and lived with 350 men on a ship for four years. And then I got married. And I was married for a little over 20 years. And after my wife came out to me, I was quite devastated, because my daughter left for college the same day that my wife moved out of the house. So all of a sudden, after all those years, I was alone. I would have to say I was in a funk for a good part of six months to a year. Then I started realizing how satisfying it was living alone. I told one friend that was considering becoming single that I personally found it intoxicating, being by myself. But I never thought that the case after all the years of being with someone and being happy being with people, I just found out that I was quite happy to be by myself.
But in the last year, something changed.
WS: One day I met a woman that came from Europe to attend a seminar at Cornell and we noticed early on that we had quite a bit of chemistry. So we spent a lot of time together, going out to dinner, cooking, going to movies, hiking to local trails, and yada yada yada. She’s back in Europe now and I can no longer say that living alone is pleasing and satisfying. In fact, I told one friend that while she was here I was alive again.
A year ago, Glen Uhlig was also getting used to life after a marriage. He and his wife separated three years ago. He lives by himself, part of the time, in Elko, Nevada.
GU: So this house is quiet. Cricket quiet. For seven days, and then bam—a six- and eight-year-old boy back in my life. School, homework, cooking, laundry, cleaning, eating, brushing teeth...
Glen splits custody of his boys with their mom—one week with her, one week with him.
GU: Monday at school when I drop them off, and I’m driving away from school, I know—I guarantee there’s this great big sigh of, phew, it’s like -- I survived. I really feel like I survived, they’re no emergency visits, they went to school, they’re safe.
AS: You also describe in your email the sound of the quiet when the boys aren’t there. Are there parts of that that you've been surprised that you enjoy?
GU: For sure. In the past two years, it’s like the only time that I've felt like I had time to, you know, it sounds horrible but to maybe read a book again, you know? Or sit down, and I get about one week’s worth of newspaper and that's when the boys are gone. Because there’s so much hustle and bustle when they’re there. Having that quietness, that solitude to totally re-boot yourself. It’s something that I know that I needed to be complete. The real reason I can give 100 percent to my kids for that seven days is because I have seven days off where I can make sure and set up and prepare and have a list of everything I need to do for the next seven days.
A year later, Glen has a new thing to balance:
GU: Kids time, AND girlfriend time. I’m still working on needing to be a planner type of person. Kids are doing great. They both are doing really good in school, which helps with thinking that they’ve adapted. Right now, my biggest worry is keeping enough food in the house to keep my two T Rex-eating boys in the years to come fed.
Lisa Wagner is also a single parent. She told me she started fantasizing about living alone when she was a teenager.
LW: I remember imagining a small cottage by the ocean.
AS: And when did you first live alone?
LW: I haven’t.
AS: Why not?
LW: First I was too young, then I was too poor. And then I was a mother.
AS: How old were you when you had your first child?
LW: Barely 22.
Lisa lives in Portland, Oregon. She got divorced four years ago, just before she turned forty. She told me that tensions around their shared space were a major factor.
LW: I felt like I worked really hard and earned a lot of money, and came home to a house that wasn’t really pleasant, and I was frustrated with that. The night after we had that final fight and we decided to separate, I couldn’t sleep, and I lay in bed. I started imagining how I was going to fix up the bedroom once it was just mine. And it got me through. I got rid of almost everything in it. I sanded every inch of woodwork. I caulked, I painted, I scrubbed the floor on my hands and knees and polished it. I put in a special rack just to hang scarves on—I wear a lot of scarves. And it’s just a sweet, sweet room now. And I can keep it so tidy. And I love going in there in the evening and laying down.
AS: So when will you live by yourself?
LW: Well, right now, I live with my daughter. She's not going to stay with me much longer. She’s almost seventeen. Once she’s out on her own, it will just be me for the first time.
AS: How does that feel?
LW: Quiet. Almost too quiet. Like that feeling when you get up earlier than you usually do in the morning and the world feels like it hasn’t woken up yet. It feels like that’s what my house will be like.
Lisa wrote to us recently that she has a new favorite room: her living room, which is now redone too. “My daughter and I spend many hours there and I adore filling it with visiting friends,” she wrote. She says she’s still a single parent, happily divorced, and, she added, “I will soon reach the end of many years of having never lived alone.”
A luxurious bedroom of her own was also a dream for Arlene Pickett.
AP: I had always wanted a feather bed duvet. And I thought it was very interesting that when I did get something for myself, that it involved something that provided physical pleasure.
Coming up, what it was like for Arlene to live alone, for the first time, after her husband died.
We’ve had such a good time checking in with everyone in this episode. I always say that the best part of my job is getting to read the emails that come in to our inbox.
And it keeps getting better. Because, more and more, you’re talking to each other.
Like, with our episode about Diane and dealing with autism in families. It stirred strong emotions—and A LOT of comments. And some of you disagreed, but it was with thoughtfulness and sincerity.
And you’re helping each other out with other life dilemmas. There have been two great threads on our Facebook page lately from people just asking for advice.
We’re thinking about how to do more of this in the coming year—both on the internet, and in person, because it's been really fun to meet you in places like Brooklyn, New Orleans, LA. We hope you can come to our next event—it's January 27 in New York. It’s a collaboration with the public radio show Selected Shorts. Ticket information is on our website at deathsexmoney.org.
But no matter where you are, keep in touch. Our email is email@example.com. And thank you for a really great year.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Arlene Pickett is 73 years old, and living alone for the first time.
Her husband died five years ago, after a long decline. Arlene took care of him, so it was an abrupt change to be all on her own.
AP: I wasn’t particularly lonely, but I did feel a strong sense of just being by myself. Anything I needed to do, or anything that needed to be done, it was up to me to decide when and how much to spend. And even to do it or not to do it. And of course, my husband didn’t choose to be ill, and I did not choose to have him ill, but the demands of that really took a lot of the element of choice of what I wanted to do away from me. So it was, as the months have gone by, it’s been a good feeling to have that sense of control back. Not control, exactly, but that sense of being in charge. Have that back.
AS: And it also sounds a little more complicated at this point in your life, because you also need people.
AP: Yes, exactly, yes.
Arlene was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. With that came chemo.
AP: During those days, everything was an effort. So I was pretty good at anticipating, you know I need three days of stuff I can just walk into the kitchen and within 90 seconds be sitting down and eating. Because cooking was really, would’ve been very very difficult. And then little things—I have a couple of cats, so, somebody had to scoop out the litter boxes during those three days, and that was really more than I felt like doing.
AS: So it made you feel vulnerable in a way that you hadn't felt before, in your home.
AP: Right, yes. And I debated, I never did, but I debated when I went to bed at night, leaving the front door off the latch. So that if I did need to call 911, I wouldn’t need to get to the door to unlock it. Part of me kind of wonders, you know, is this what it’s gonna be like? Am I going to be one of these elderly people you read about, that's all by himself or all by herself, and nobody checks in, nobody calls, and then something happens? That kind of weighs on my mind.
It’s been about two years since Arlene’s cancer diagnosis—which her doctor says is an important milestone. Arlene says, “I am feeling well. I can't quite think of myself as out of the woods, but I can picture myself standing near the edge of the trees, looking at the sunshine in the clearing ahead of me.”
A lot of you echoed Arlene’s quiet fears about safety when you’re alone at home.
I still lock all three locks on the door every night.
Sometimes you do miss having somebody else in the house with you. When, like, a scary noise happens in the middle of the night.
In fact, I lock them at every point in time I’m in the apartment.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to go to bed, because I think about how easy it would be for someone to crawl up the fire escape and then kidnap me.
I think about the scene in Frankie and Johnny, when Michelle Pfeiffer is eating alone in her apartment, and she starts choking and she gives herself the Heimlich over a chair.
I realized that had I fainted and hit my head on the tub, I could’ve been dead and found naked in the tub, alone.
EM: I usually leave the door open.
AS: Why do you leave the door open?
EM: Well, what if I call for help and they can’t get in?
Ernie Major is 71 and has mostly lived alone since he and his wife split and his kids left the house.
EM: I live in a single-wide trailer in Vallejo, California, and I do have a few guns, so I have a gun safe right next to where I sleep. I just leave the door to that open.
AS: How long have you lived alone?
EM: Absolutely alone, I’d say, seven or eight years. Something like that. Has its upsides, I was up 'til 3 last night baking and watching TV and stuff. But, it gets very lonely, and that’s where the dogs come in.
AS: Do you talk to your dogs?
EM: Oh yeah. Not long conversations, and they in that, on my days off and stuff, they need and want to go places, and it gets me out of the house. They kind of lift you up.
AS: What were you baking last night 'til 3 in the morning?
EM: Bread and a pie. I just got frozen stuff, and baked up a loaf of bread and a blackberry pie. Which I’m looking forward to. Fact, that's gonna be—I haven’t eaten breakfast yet, so bacon and eggs and pie sounds like a balanced meal to me.
Since we talked, Ernie had open heart surgery. “My wife let me move in with her for about three months after that, but I'm back where I was," he wrote. “Working a lot because other people were covering for me while I was off and now I need to work their shifts so they can take some time off.”
RM: I went back to work, I was feeling intense financial pressure being faced with divorce. Like, ah I gotta get back to work.
Four years ago, when Richie Moriarty was 31, he was married and living in Boston. Then, his wife told him she was leaving.
RM: I wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping well, and there was this one day at work where before work I went to Dunkin' Donuts and got a couple of donuts. I got home at like 5 pm and realized, not only have I not eaten anything all day, but I didn’t even eat the donuts. So, I think at this point I got a call from my ex that triggered something, so I’m having this terrible moment and I was like, I just need to get in the shower and like, start this day clean. And at the same time, I’m starving. I’m so hungry. So I grabbed a glazed donut, and I ate it in the shower. I ate a glazed donut in the shower. And I don’t know if that’s rock bottom...
AS: Or bliss.
RM: ...or rock top. It was bliss, it was bliss.
Richie lives in New York now. He moved after the divorce to do more acting. And in February, he moved in with a new girlfriend.
RM: It’s been exciting and comfortable and all those things that you hope it will be when you make the decision to move in together.
Living with someone, after not living with anybody, can feel good.
Like, for Jen. A year ago, she was really enjoying living alone, and running around her apartment without pants. But then, she had leave her apartment because the building got sold...and she lost her job. She broke up with a boyfriend around the same time too.
Jen: I moved into this apartment three days before starting grad school. I do live with a roommate, and she’s great. And she has two cats who are awesome. I totally love the cats. Yeah so lots of changes, but I'm looking forward... I think it really opened me up to new possibilities that really anything is possible. I got through all of that and, um, it wasn't... life didn’t end.
But living with someone again...means re-introducing compromise into your home life. Before my husband and I moved in together, I never expected debates about how many animal parts should be displayed in a house. (Arthur’s a wildlife ecologist...which means lots of antlers, skulls and feathers. He mostly won that debate.)
But a change that was harder for me, was losing time to myself. Because, when I lived alone, that was automatic. It’s not something I had to carve out.
MS: It’s a pretty huge deal that it’s coming to an end.
Melissa Sorrells lived alone for the first time after she got divorced from her first husband.
When we spoke last year, she was engaged to be married again...and her fiance Dan was moving in in three weeks.
MS: I’ve always been afraid to be alone, like I would have some anxiety about what I would do to fill my time. But it turns out, that’s not such a problem. I manage to fill the time pretty well.
AS: On a night when you’re by yourself, in your place, what do you do?
MS: I do a lot of yoga. I’ll push all the furniture to the side, and I’ll stretch, which is very helpful, very calming. Actually, I’m wondering how that’s going to work once I’m living with someone else. Because I’m not going to be able to shove everything against the walls.
AS: Have you started—since this is three weeks away that he’s moving in—have you started noticing the small details that might change, and feeling a little wistful?
MS: Um, wistful isn’t the right word. I don't think I'm going to miss it too much. Because he’s a good sleeper. He’ll sleep in on a Saturday morning, and that’ll give me like enough of my own space. Yeah, a little nervous, like, how’s this going to work? If I just drop my purse on the middle of the floor, I’m not going to be able to do that anymore. I need to find a place to actually keep it.
AS: But it’s neat how, when you describe his sleeping in, like how you’re aware that you’re going to have this time, that you get to do the things that you have realized make you feel good. By yourself.
MS: Yeah, definitely. And even just spending a couple hours with a book, uninterrupted, where he’s not going to be like, hey, let’s make popcorn! Hey, pay attention to me, I’m here, I’m a human. It’ll be good, like I know that I’ll have a couple of hours. That makes me sound horrible, doesn’t it?
MS: It’s definitely something I value. A lot. And I don’t know if I realized how much I valued it because my ex-husband, he worked nights a lot of the time, and he worked long weekends, so it was always something that made me so anxious, I never realized how important it was to have my own quiet time, my own space.
AS: Yeah, instead of an absence, now it feels like a gift.
MS: Yes, exactly!
After almost a year of living together, Melissa says it’s all gone smoother than she expected. And she was right. Her fiance Dan being a big sleeper...is really nice.
MS: He’ll sleep late on the weekends and a lot of times he goes to bed before me so I also have some of my own time for just me.
AS: What do you do on Saturday mornings when he’s still in bed and you’re up?
MS: Sometimes I do laundry, sometimes it’s even just like, watching Grey’s Anatomy, which he doesn't watch. I'll just watch it on a Saturday morning, because then I feel like I did something like, I enjoyed my thing but it didn’t like come up into our time together.
AS: And you got to watch watch Grey’s Anatomy, without feeling bad about it.
MS: Right. (laughs)
So, no matter how many people live in your household, there’s something to be said, for closing a door...to pretend you’re the only one around.
[Liza Minelli's "Live Alone and Like It"]
Death, Sex & Money is a production of WNYC Studios. The team includes Katie Bishop, Chester Jesus Soria, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Thanks to Bill Moss for his help on this episode.
Thanks also to Greg Young at Sony and Sean Patrick Flahaven at Warner/Chappell Music for the use of this song. And to Trystan Angel Reese for recommending it! It’s a Sondheim song from Liza Minnelli’s Live from Radio City Music Hall album -- and made for blasting when you’re home alone.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale. So is the show @deathsexmoney! And you can email us any time with feedback or a story to share at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.