Journal of Aging Studies
Background and objectives: This paper explores current concerns and practice related to older people dying alone in Intensive Care Units, care homes, and at home through media discussions during the Covid-19 pandemic and before. It addresses the historically-situated concept of a good death and a bad death and suggests why dying alone, whether completely alone or without significant others physically present, may be considered a bad death.
Methods: As evidence for collective fears about dying alone, we explored the treatment of these deaths in media using headline examples from the US New York Times and the English Guardian newspaper from the 19th century through Sept. 2020.
Results: A search of the New York Times located 39 articles with either lonely dying or lonely death in the headline. The Guardian had 25 articles with use of the term, but unlike the New York Times, no obituaries were included. Although the deaths profiled were deemed unusual, deaths by suicide were only minimally classed as dying alone. The condition of dying alone is represented as a stigmatised death. Themes addressed: 1) dying alone is a nonnormative event; 2) this death matters; and 3) where people die alone, societies should honour the death and learn from it.
Discussion and implications: Contemporary dying involves conditions for which we are unprepared as a society. We seldom address our civic obligations to each other. Few people have discussed their wishes about their preferences in dying and whether and how they want to be accompanied at their death, if possible. This is an invisible constraint of modern healthcare. Because of limited discussions and preparation, these deaths may lead to disenfranchised grief for the mourners. Cultural and societal responses to lonely dying are important in easing the emotional burden of dying alone, helping individuals prepare for this possibility and better integrating death with the life course. Recommendations include inclusion of accompaniment/nonaccompaniment at death as part of advance care planning and mitigation if this condition occurs. It is essential for individuals to find their own still point of acceptance within competing societal narratives of privileging the self in dying alone and the value of social connection.
Nelson-Becker, H., & Victor, C. (2020). Dying alone and lonely dying: Media discourse and pandemic conditions, Journal of Aging Studies, 55; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaging.2020.100878
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© The Authors, 2020.