Photo: Ms. Yolanda, a 77-year-old Honduran, lives alone in a subsidized Chicago apartment. (Marcela Cartagena/La Raza)
Part 2. Read Part 1 here.
CHICAGO--In the summer of 1995, Chicago was hit by a heat wave so devastating that it killed 750 people, most of them elders who lived alone and isolated in poor neighborhoods. They didn’t have air conditioners and didn’t open the windows in fear of crime.
According to the last United States Census, about one-in-five adults age 65 or older live alone, but the statistic doesn’t differentiate races. Although the number of Latino elders living on their own in the Chicago-area is unknown, federal figures show that one-third of those between 45 and 63 live alone, a 50 percent increase since 1980.
Osvaldo Caballero, a senior adult protective services supervisor at Chicago’s Metropolitan Family Services, said his organization has seen a significant increase of Latino elders living alone. Through the city of Chicago’s Well-Being Check program, local officials can find older adults who are isolated or are caught in an abusive situation.
“The city provides training to utility companies, such as Comcast and Comed, who alert authorities when they see cases of alienation and abuse through the 312 number [Chicago’s emergency line],” said Caballero.
“We have seen cases of older people who are undocumented, who don’t have a Social Security number or employment history and don’t qualify for government programs. What we try to do is seek help with nonprofit agencies, churches and other groups, but is it difficult to find the right help,” he added.
Two older women who have been living alone for several years. (Their last names are being kept confidential as per their requests). To keep their social lives in check, both take advantage of the nonprofit organization Casa Central, which offers a strong and solid program for Latino adults.
Ms. Yolanda, a 77-year-old Honduran, a widow and mother of seven children, lives in a publicly subsidized apartment where she pays a $100-rent per month. She receives $480 per month of government assistance plus $189 in food stamps. Although she has a large family, she prefers to live independently because she said she doesn’t want to “bother” to her children.
“You know how things are here in the United States, everyone lives in his or her own little world,” said Ms. Yolanda, who asked not to include her full name.
Asked, what would she would do if something happens, such as if she fell, and no one was around to help, she replied, “That worries me because if in the middle of the night I get a heart attack, God forbid, I don’t know what I would do.”
Still, Ms. Yolanda affirmed that she is happy and optimistic. She visits the Casa Central program a couple of times a week where she gets a chance to socialize with her friends, who also live alone and enjoy the organization’s activities.
“I’m a novelera (a soap-opera fan), and sometimes I just call my girlfriends to talk. I find things to do to entertain myself,” she said.
For Ms. Delarta, 74, living alone has had its ups and downs. She stays busy meditating, cleaning, cooking and going out with her friends. But she said she often feels alone especially because her two daughters don’t visit her as often as they used to.
“Sometimes my mouth gets dry because I don’t have anybody to talk to,” said Ms. Delarta, who is Puerto Rican. “Sometimes I tell myself, my God, if I had someone I could talk to, if I could have someone to help me carry bags [when grocery shopping]. Honestly, inside I feel very young and I would love to have a partner, someone with whom I could talk.”
Recently, Ms. Delarta had eye surgery. The next day, there was no one around to help her with her daily chores. “I had to be ingenious and had no other choice but to take care of myself,” she said.
Not Being a ‘Burden’
Tatiana Sanjuines, program director of Casa Central’s Adult Wellness Center, said: “We Hispanics don’t plan. We want to stay home, but we don’t do anything for when the time comes for us to live alone. We don’t save, we don’t plan for retirement,” she said.
Sanjuines continued, “Being old doesn’t have to be a burden. It should be an opportunity to do everything we want to do, to do the things we never could do. There are many resources that they don’t take advantage of, in part because they don’t know English.”
Juana Reyes, senior supervisor for senior services at, the organization, added, “It’s sad because we see them sick, with depression. Some don’t want to eat, some don’t take their medications on time, or they don’t take them or take too many.”
Casa Central offers homecare services where the elders who live alone receive such services as cooking, cleaning and laundry and personal hygiene help. Through the program, workers go to seniors’ houses where often they see people who are depressed and neglecting their basic needs.
For instance, one woman whose living conditions indicated a serious case of self-negligence, said María Bernavé, who supervises homecare services at Casa Central. “She slept on a sofa and did her business [urinating and defecating] in a cup she kept by the sofa,” she said, adding, “she rejected any help.”
Bernavé continued, “The truth is that they [elders living alone] feel highly depressed. Sometimes they don’t want to eat, they don’t have anyone to motivate them, they are alone in small rooms without being able to speak to anyone.”
She noted, “The only people with whom they can converse are the home care workers. Many times we tell the workers that if [the older people] don’t want their houses to be cleaned but would rather talk, we tell them to go ahead and talk to them.”
Bernavé and the dozens of other experts in aging interviewed for this series showed that growing old alone both is complex and affects people in different ways. Living alone can be a positive as well as a negative experience.
Nonetheless, the most important thing to keep in mind is that each one of us will encounter loneliness at some point in our lives. But when we reach the golden years, are we prepared to live alone?
This article, the second in an English-language series, was translated by the author and is adapted from her three-part series published in Chicago’s La Raza. Read the original stories in Spanish: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.