Fear of A Lonely Death

By Nancy Wurtzel

Last year, in the middle of summer, George Bell, a 73-year-old man died alone in his Queens, New York apartment.  His body wasn’t discovered for almost a week, and he may well have remained there longer if a neighbor, smelling a putrid odor, had not alerted police.

George Bell’s death and its aftermath was the subject of a poignant New York Times article “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” written by N. R. Kleinfield.  The story pieced together George Bell’s life, which had been filled with work, friends and activity in his younger years.  But as he got older, his world became smaller and he grew more isolated.  During his last years, George had lost contact with all family and almost all of his friends.

Also revealed were the stark realities of what happens when someone dies without family or good friends to decide what to do with their remains, belongings and estate.  In these cases, government agencies must step in to create closure.

In New York City, about 50,000 people die a year, although no statistics are kept on how many die alone.

“A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles,” writes Kleinfield. “No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables.”

The manner in which George Bell left this world struck an emotional chord with readers in New York City and beyond.  Within days, thousands left comments and shared the Timesarticle on social media. Many readers noted they feared they, too, would die alone.  Some readers even described George Bell’s fate as their greatest fear.

In the English language, there are terms for thousands of phobias but there is no specific word to describe the fear of dying alone.  However, as our population grays, this may change.

Take Japan, for example, the fastest-aging country on earth, where 23% of the population is age 65 or over.  The Japanese people call dying alone and not being found for a period of time, kodokushi, which literally translated means “lonely death.”

Why are more people concerned about a lonely death?

One reason may be that more individuals are living alone than ever before.

Generations of families used to live together for economic reasons.  Now, younger generations are getting married later in life while others marry and then divorce.  Some choose not to marry or have children at all.

Twenty-seven million Americans now reside in one-person households, up from 17 million in 1970.

In major cities like Atlanta, San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis and Seattle, as many as 40 percent of its citizens reside alone, and if you live in Manhattan, your chances of living in a single-occupant household are one in two.