Fear of Dying Alone: People Dread a Lonely Death

by Nancy Wurtzel on March 14, 2016

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In 2014, in the middle of a hot New York City summer, George Bell, a 73-year-old man died alone in his Queens, New York apartment. About a week later, one of his neighbors noticed an odor and alerted the authorities, otherwise his body may have lingered there for much longer.  George Bell’s death and its aftermath was the subject of a riveting New York Times article “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” by N. R. Kleinfield. The reporter pieced together George Bell’s life from his childhood, through adulthood and into his later years and ultimate death.  The article also focused on the fear of dying alone.

The stark reality of dying alone and without family or good friends to decide what to do with their remains, belongings and estate is something that scares many people. In these “lonely death” cases, government agencies must step in to create closure.

“No one collects their bodies,” writes Kleinfeld.  “No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables.”

George Bell’s life, and the manner in which he left this world, struck an emotional chord with readers locally in New York City and far beyond. Thousands of people left comments online, wrote letters to the editor, and shared the article on social media.

Some readers described George Bell’s fate — dying alone — as their greatest fear.

Kodokushi: The Fear of Dying Alone

Alzheimer's disease-dying alone-elderly-aging in place-aging wellThe Japanese people have a term for when someone dies alone and is not found for a period of time.  It’s called kodokushi, which literally translated means “lonely death.”

The English language has words for thousands of phobias but there is no specific term to describe the fear of dying alone.  However, as our population ages, this certainly may change.

Why are more people concerned about dying alone?

One reason may be that more people live alone than ever before. Twenty-seven million Americans now reside in one-person households, up from 17 million in 1970.  If you live in Manhattan, your chances of living in a single-occupant household are one in two.

George Bell was one of these New Yorker’s.

In his prime, George’s life had been filled with work, friends and activity. But as he got older, his world became smaller and smaller.  During his last years, George’s health and abilities deteriorated. By the end of his life, he’d lost contact with all family and almost all of his friends.

Living alone isn’t inherently bad.  When we are young, living solo has many perks, like the privacy to live how you want and the ability to chill out by yourself when the pressures of modern life get to be too much.

Americans especially, relish their individualism, independence and self-reliance. However, as we age, our relationships can become tenuous. Family may not live close by. Friends are aging too, and are less able to help.  The generations below are busy with jobs, families, friends and hobbies.

Suddenly, living alone may not seem like such a good idea after all.

Staying Connected To Others As You Age

seniors-aging-elderly-pet therapy-dogsThere are some good options for living with others.  Some families find that living with three or even four generations has real advantages and they can make it work.

For those who want to maintain their personal space, such as an apartment, but still transition to a larger group environment, there is independent living, assisted living or senior housing.

Personally, I’ve had some experience with assisted living and it’s not for me.  However, I am interested in communal living arrangements, which  are beginning to catch on in places around the country.  Communal living bring together like-minded people to live together, perhaps in a large house or a group of small homes, sharing costs and providing support for each other.

I’m also intrigued by the tiny house movement and the handful of small-house communities that have sprung up around the country.  More on this in a later post.

Those who still find these choices too confining or conforming can make their own network allowing them to ‘age in place’ in their current home or a place of their choosing.  However, it takes effort and flexibility to make this happen.

Strong Relationships Benefit People of All Ages

No matter where a person decides to live, everyone can benefit from maintaining and expanding relationships with other people.

A few ideas on how to stay connected include:

  • Stay engaged in life
  • Take classes, join groups, volunteer
  • Be physically active
  • Get a pet or more than one
  • Maintain an interest in others
  • Be open about feelings, wants and needs
  • If required, seek help from a social worker, counselor, etc.

The main goal is to keep learning and growing at all ages.  Maintaining strong relationships in your life has so many benefits.  And, those connections can help alleviate the fear of leaving this world without anyone knowing or caring.

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1 Ruth Perchard March 16, 2016 at 12:35 pm

It’s not so much the act of dying that concerns me. I figure my body & spirit will be mostly preoccupied with the work of the exiting process.
It’s the months & years preceeding that are concerning. Am made very aware of the “thinning out” of close social associations; and the considerable challenge to build new ones. Re-learning how to “mingle”.

2 Susan March 15, 2016 at 7:31 pm

Very interesting and lots to ponder. Great post.

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