New research suggests dying alone is sometimes a choice, not a tragedy

A new study by experts from the University of Nottingham, examines why some people die alone and what circumstances can lead to them spending their final days isolated from others.

As COVID-19 remains and self-isolation continues across the globe, a higher number of people than ever before will be spending their final moments alone, but why is living and dying alone such a social taboo? Is it a sad case of a person abandoned by society, or a personal choice?

Even before the pandemic, more people than ever before were living alone, raising concerns about social isolation, particularly amongst older people. Solo living increases the likelihood of dying alone at home. When this happens and the person has few friends or relatives, there is an increased chance that the body may not be discovered for some time.

Deaths in these circumstances are often described as ‘lone deaths’, and while most are of older people, it can also happen to younger people.

A two-year study, led by experts in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham, has looked to increase understanding of the circumstances that might lead to a lone death and how individuals and services respond when such a death is discovered.

“Most people in Britain only learn about those who undergo lone deaths through the media reports which they might read,” says Dr Glenys Caswell, principle investigator on the project.

“Such reports tend to focus on how sad it is that someone should die alone in this way, and to suggest that someone is to blame, that the community has let the person down, society has forgotten them or abandoned them. But I think there is a different way of reading such deaths. The aim of our research was to explore cases of lone deaths to understand how people come to die in these circumstances.”

The researchers talked to people whose work involved dealing with the aftermath of such deaths. People such as those working for local authorities with the responsibility for organising public health funerals, with the aim of trying to establish who had died, plus when, where and how this had happened.

The team also interviewed funeral celebrants and funeral directors who were involved in the conduct and leading of public health funerals.

Dr Nicola Turner, a research Fellow on the project, said: “By carrying out these interviews we wanted to learn how professionals manage lone deaths on behalf of the rest of us.”

The team collected in-depth information on ten cases of a lone death from as many sources as possible, including documents; interviews with people who knew the person when they were alive and people who responded to the lone death. They also interviewed twelve professionals whose role brings them into contact with lone deaths and they observed four funerals of people who died alone at home.

They found that:

  • In a small number of cases the person who died had cut themselves off from others and effectively entered a period of social death prior to their physical death.
  • In most cases, the death was of a private person who liked their own company, did not have a large circle of friends and whose family was small, non-existent or geographically spread.
  • The people who formed the basis of the case studies contributed to society and their local communities in the same ways that most people do, working in ordinary jobs and paying their taxes.

The key message is that such a death could happen to almost anyone; to me, or to someone I know. Dying alone need not indicate that a person is odd, just that they are quiet and private in their way of living. When a person undergoes such a death, we should remember that they were a member of our community and this should be acknowledged. It may be that the local authority will manage the process that takes place after the person has died, such as registering the death and organising the funeral. The funeral needs to acknowledge the person as a member of their community, even if little is known about them when they were alive.”

A summary of study findings will be available from 31 July 2020.

The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

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