Elderly Singaporeans who live alone are 1.7 times as likely to die prematurely as those living with friends or family. This is despite both groups having similar number of illnesses, and levels of physical and social activities.
Elderly men, in particular, are almost three times as likely to die earlier if they live alone compared with living with others. Elderly women who live alone, meanwhile, are 1.2 times more likely to die earlier than those who live with others.
These findings, from the ongoing Singapore Longitudinal Ageing Studies, was shared yesterday by Associate Professor Ng Tze Pin from the Department of Psychological Medicine at the National University of Singapore. The study, which was started in 2003, collected data from 2,553 people aged above 55. Of these, 189 lived alone. It followed them up to December 2011. A total of 227 of them died in the period.
Prof Ng said: "They most likely had more serious illnesses that we were not able to measure. And they may have had more serious illnesses mainly because of poor treatment, poor care and support."
He pegged the poor care and support to the lack or loss of a spouse - especially among men - who could have helped to monitor health conditions, adherence to medication routines and keeping medical appointments.
The research also found that elderly people who live alone are about twice as likely to suffer depression and loneliness.
This is the first time research has been done in Singapore on the mortality of the elderly who live alone.
Government projections show that the number of seniors living alone is expected to grow from 35,000 in 2012 to 83,000 by 2030.
Social workers said Singapore should better engage the elderly so that living alone becomes only a housing issue and need not mean that seniors are also without help.
Mr Isaac Teo, manager at Transition Plus interim housing at AMKFSC Community Services, suggested more elderly services be taken into their homes.
He said: "We should create more accessible services, befriend them in their homes, hold activities near their blocks, so they are more visible to voluntary welfare organisations that can help manage their health problems."
Mr Edwin Yim, director of AWWA Family Service Centre, said: "Even a younger person who lives alone needs to be socially connected. But voluntary welfare organisations like Lions Befrienders cannot be doing everything. Neighbours should be able to step in, have a bit of kampung spirit and help keep watch over the elderly, remind them to take their medication and keep doctors' appointments."