Dying old: and preferably alone? Agency, resistance and dissent at the end of life

Main Article Content

Allan Kellehear


Older people who die alone are commonly portrayed negatively in the academic and popular literature. Dying alone is viewed either as an outcome of anti-social behaviour or the result of family, neighbourhood or social services neglect. The idea that people may be exercising agency, resistance or dissent at the end of life and that they do not want attention from services or the wider community receives little or no consideration. By comparing the community and professional views with those of the elderly about end of life preferences, this paper argues that the academic and community image of the elderly as ’’victims’’ has eclipsed the usual ability to see this group in pluralist terms. This stereotype of older people who die alone has negative consequences for sociological and policy analysis.


Metrics Loading ...

Article Details



Adams, J. & Johnson, J. (2008). Older people ‘found dead’ at home: Challenges for the coroner system in England and Wales. Mortality 13(4): 351–360. [Read this article]

Age Concern. (2008). Older People in the United Kingdom: Key Facts and Statistics 2008. London: Age Concern.

Bradshaw, J., Clifton, M. & Kennedy, J. (1977). Found dead: A study of old people found dead. Age Concern, Occasional Paper #5.

Carmel, S. (2001). The will to live: Gender differences among elderly persons. Social Science & Medicine 52: 949–958. [Read this article]

Cattell, H. (2000). Suicide in the elderly. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 6: 102–108. [Read this article]

Cicirelli, V. G. (1998). Views of elderly people concerning end of life decisions. Journal of Applied Gerontology 17(2): 186–203. [Read this article]

Dunnel, K. (2008). Ageing and mortality in the UK. Population Trends 134: 6–23.

Elias, N. (1985). The Loneliness of the Dying. Oxford: Blackwell.

Farquhar, M. (1995). Elderly people’s definitions of quality of life. Social Science & Medicine 41: 1439–1446. [Read this article]

Field, D. (1984). We didn’t want him to die on his own – nurses accounts of nursing dying patients. Journal of Advanced Nursing 9: 59–70. [Read this article]

Fry, P. S. (1990). A factor analytic investigation of home bound elderly individuals’ concerns about death and dying and their coping responses. Journal of Clinical Psychology 46(6): 737–748. [Read this article] PMid:2149563

Gelo, F. (2004). Dying alone with the TV. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine 21(3): 167–168. [Read this article] PMid:15188914

Gott, M., Seymour, J., Bellamy, G., Clark, D. & Ahmedzai, S. (2004). Older people’s views about home as a place of care at the end of life. Palliative Medicine 18: 460–467. [Read this article] PMid:15332424

Gott, M., Small, N., Barnes, S., Payne, S. & Seamark, D. (2008). Older people’s views of a good death in heart failure: Implications for palliative care provision. Social Science & Medicine 67: 1113–1121. [Read this article]

Gove, W. R. & Hughes, M. (1980). Re-examining the ecological fallacy: A study in which data are critical in investigating the pathological effects of living alone. Social Forces 58(4): 1157–1177. [Read this article]

Gurley, R. J., Lum, N., Sande, M., Lo, B. & Katz, M. H. (1996). Persons found in their homes helpless or dead. New England Journal of Medicine 334(26): 1710–1716. [Read this article] PMid:8637517

Hallberg, I. R. (2004). Death and dying from older people’s point of view: A literature review. Aging Clinical and Experimental Research 16(2): 87–102.

Hamiltby, G. B. (2000). Loneliness in Later Life. New York: Palgrave.

Howarth, G. (1998). ‘Just live for today’: Living, caring, ageing and dying. Ageing and Society 18: 673–689. [Read this article]

Howse, K. (1997). Deaths of People Alone. London: Centre for Policy on Ageing. And also: Centre for Policy on Ageing. (1997). Dying Alone: Interim Results from a Study of Coroners’ Records in Southwark and Waltham Forest. London: Centre for Policy on Ageing.

Kellehear, A. (2007). A Social History of Dying. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kelner, M. (1995). Activists and delegators: Elderly patients’ preferences about control at the end of life. Social Science & Medicine 41: 537–545. [Read this article]

Kim, C., Ko, M. H., Kim, M. J., Kim, J., Kim, H. J., Moon, J. H., Baek, K. S., Son, H., Oh, S., Lee, Y. & Choi, J. S. (2008). The life of elderly women living alone. Journal of the Korean Academy of Nursing 38(5): 739–747. [Read this article] PMid:19114763

Klinenberg, E. (2001). Dying alone: The social production of urban isolation. Ethnography 2(4): 501–531. [Read this article]

Krivo, L. J. & Mutchler, J. E. (1989). Elderly persons living alone: The effect of community context on living arrangements. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 44(2): 554–562.

Leishman, J. (2008). Older people, death, dying and end of life care. Quality in Ageing 9(4): 36–43.

Lishman, G. (2009). Our Response to the Case of Ken Mann Found Dead After 6 Years. London: Age Concern England.

Lloyd-Williams, M., Kennedy, V., Sixsmith, A. & Sixsmith, J. (2007). The end of life: A qualitative study of the perceptions of people over the age of 80 on issues surrounding death and dying. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management 43(1): 60–66. [Read this article]

McKee, M., Kelley, M. L. & Guirguis-Younger, M. (2007). So no one dies alone: A study of hospice volunteering with rural seniors. Journal of Palliative Care 23(3): 163–172.

Millar, M. (2003). You just shed life: A nursing home resident talks about the future. In A. Kellehear & D. Ritchie (eds.), Seven Dying Australians (pp. 24–34). Bendigo, VIC: Innovative Resources.

National Statistics. (2002a). Social Trends 31:2002. Available on www.statistics.gov.uk (Accessed: March 27, 2009).

National Statistics. (2002b). Social Trends 32:2002. Available onwww.statistics.gov.uk (Accessed: March 27, 2009).

O’Connell, J. J. (2005). Raging against the night: Dying homeless and alone. Journal of Clinical Ethics 16(3): 262–266.

Owen, T. (ed.) (2005). Dying in Older Age: Reflections and Experiences from an Older Person‘s Perspective. London: Help the Aged.

Roy, D. J. (2003). Editorial: When people die alone … a meditation on humanity. Journal of Palliative Care 19(4): 227–228.

Seale, C. (1995). Dying alone. Sociology of Health & Illness 17(3): 376–392. [Read this article]

Seale, C. (1996). Living alone towards the end of life. Ageing and Society 16: 75–91. [Read this article]

Seale, C. (2004). Media constructions of dying alone: A form of ‘bad death’. Social Science & Medicine 58: 967–974. [Read this article]

Smith-Reese, J. (2005). The gift of dying at home alone. Caring 24(11): 62–66, 68.

Steinhauser, K. E., Clipp, E. C., McNeilly, M., Christakis, N. A., McIntyre, L. M. & Tulsky, J. A. (2000). In search of a good death: Observations of patients, families, and providers. Annals of Internal Medicine 132(10): 825–832.

Tomassini, C., Glaser, K.,Wolf, D. A., Brouse van Groenau, M. I. & Grundy, E. (2004). Living arrangements among older people: An overview of trends in Europe and the USA. Population Trends 115(Spring): 24–34.

Tunstall, J. (1966). Old and Alone: A Sociological Study of Old People. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Victor, C. R., Scambler, S. J. & Bond, J. (2009). The Social World of Older People: Understanding Loneliness and Social Isolation in Later Life. New York: Open University Press.

Victor, C. R., Scambler, S. J., Bond, J. & Bowling, A. (2004). Loneliness in later life. In A. Walker & C. Hagan Hennessy (eds.), Growing Older: Quality of Life in Old Age (pp. 107–126). New York: Open University Press.

Vig, E. K., Davenport, N. A. & Pearlman, R. A. (2002). Good deaths, bad deaths, and preferences for end of life: A qualitative study of geriatric outpatients. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 50: 1541–1548. [Read this article]

Weeks, D. J. (1994). A review of loneliness concepts with particular reference to old age. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 9: 345–355. [Read this article]

Winter, L., Parker, B. & Schneider, M. (2007). Imagining the alternatives to life prolonging treatments: Elders’ beliefs about the dying experience. Death Studies 31: 619–631. [Read this article]