National Post

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

25% of households have only one person

St. John's singles capital: Trend crosses every age and region in Canada

Francine Dubé
National Post, with files from The Canadian Press

Paul Darrow, National Post
Halifax resident Madonna Belleau has lived alone for 10 years.

After 10 years of living alone, Madonna Belleau has reached an easy accommodation with the single woman who lives upstairs from her in Halifax.

Their doors are always open and they travel freely between the two apartments. When Belleau, 42, is cooking and finds she is out of milk, she pops upstairs to borrow some from her neighbour, who in turn dashes down occasionally to use Belleau's microwave. They watch Friends together every night.

"I know when I hear the footsteps coming down that it's five to seven; Friends must be about due to come on," Belleau laughs. "Then she goes back upstairs and does her thing. It's just nice to know that for that one half-hour, someone will be there."

Belleau is one of a growing number of Canadians living alone. Census figures released yesterday show a quarter of all Canadian households contained only one person last year, up from a fifth in 1981.

In fact, there were more one-person households -- 2,976,875 -- than there were households with four or more people, a figure that stood at 2,938,455.

The trend crosses every age and region but it is particularly evident among the elderly, who comprise more than a third of Canada's solo households, according to Statistics Canada. For women between 75 and 84, the proportion jumps to 42.8%. And even among those 85 and older, 38.5% of women lived on their own. That's up from 25% in 1981.

The trend was also evident at younger ages and across Canada.

St. John's, Nfld., was the country's singles capital, with 31.7% of city households having only a single occupant. Other contenders were Halifax, at 23.2%, Chicoutimi, Que., 21.6%, and Abbotsford, B.C., 20.5%. The two cities with the lowest percentage of one-person households were Regina with 7.4% and Saskatoon with 7.9%.

Deanne Foley, 30, a video-journalist in St. John's, says there may be a simple explanation for St. John's reign as the single-living capital.

"In St. John's, it's not impossible to find affordable accommodation for one person," she says. "A lot of people in larger centres are sort of forced to find a roommate or fall into a relationship and move in together more quickly for financial reasons."

Although they form 25% of households, Canadians living alone accounted for only 12.5% of the Canadian population in 2001, a five-fold increase in the half century since the 1951 census. That compares to 12% in Great Britain and 10% in the United States.

U.S. demographer Frances Kobrin has called the trend toward solitary households the greatest change in living arrangements of the 20th century.

The 1901 Canadian census showed about 2% of the adult population lived alone, peaking sharply at 5% among men aged 70 to 74.

Even multi-person households are getting smaller, while at the same time average living space is on the increase. Last year, the average Canadian household size was 2.6 people. That compares to 2.9 in 1981 and 4.0 in 1951.

There are a number of possible explanations for the growing trend toward solitary living. People are marrying older and woman have achieved greater economic independence.

Falling fertility rates have meant there are fewer adult children to take in ageing, widowed parents. The cultural shift away from the extended family has also left more aunts, uncles and grandparents living on their own.

Government programs also may have played a role, particularly the 1966 Canada Pension Plan that generally improved the economic lot of seniors. In addition, there has been a policy shift toward getting seniors out of institutions and hospitals as quickly as possible.

Relatively fewer seniors are living in institutions or nursing homes. The census found 287,480 seniors living in health care institutions, including 9.2% of senior women and 4.9% of men. Both those proportions had declined from 1981.

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