As more seniors age alone, more planning is required

My friend Dr. Sara Zeff Geber coined the term “solo agers” after realizing so many of her childfree friends were caring for their aging parents.

The question loomed large: Who was going to care for them when they got older?

Geber’s term has expanded to include older adults who are geographically distant from their children or who choose not to rely on them for help as they age.

My husband and I know all too well the challenges of aging alone, as we had “adopted” our elderly neighbors in their last five years of life. With no children or nearby relatives, our neighbors had no one to lean on as their health worsened and activities of daily living became impossible.

Fortunately for them, we stepped in. But in the process, my husband and I, who also have no children, asked ourselves the same question Sara did: Who will care for us as we age and need help?

The incidence of solo agers has risen dramatically with the boomer generation. Twenty percent of baby boomers do not have children, and many that do are geographically separated from them.

Right now, my husband and I have each other to rely on; however, that will not always be the case.

Medical professionals and social service agencies are seeing a growing population of older adults—age 80 and over—who live alone with little to no support system. In gerontological terms, these individuals are called elder orphans.

“Elder orphans are a unique subset of the aging population,” said the author of a research paper on the topic. “Earlier in their lives, most of these individuals functioned well on their own, but as they age and decline, they may realize, often too late, that they can no longer perform the tasks they were previously able to do.”

Without a social network to help care for them, they’re at risk for many challenges. In a recent University of Texas study, 78 percent of participants who identified as elder orphans had no help with bills or financial decisions, 56 percent had no help with medical decisions and 70 percent had not identified a would-be caregiver. Over one-third had no one to call in an emergency.

Any solo ager is at risk of becoming an elder orphan if they do not have a plan.

According to AARP editor Christina Ianzito, “There is a widely held assumption in the healthcare industry that everyone has a family caregiver waiting in the wings.”

Carol Marak, founder of the Elder-Orphan Facebook Group said, “When you go in for a colonoscopy, they won’t even do the procedure if you don’t have someone to take you home. Everyone thinks we all have family. Well, we don’t.”

So what can we solo agers do to prevent ourselves from becoming elder orphans?

One idea might be to pick up Geber’s book, “Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers: A retirement and aging roadmap for single and childless adults.”

Geber was recently awarded the designation of 2018 Influencer in Aging and has spent eight years researching and studying solo agers.

You can also begin a conversation in your social network about your friends’ plans for aging and what fellow solo agers plan to do when they need help.

Additionally, learn what resources are available to you in your community. Social service agencies like Senior Concerns help thousands of people a year identify resources to help them live as independently as possible.

Having a plan gives you control. Rather than leaving things up to chance, you get to make choices and decisions.

Make sure you share your plan with those who will help you.

Finally, life changes and things happen. Revisit your plan periodically.

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Andrea GallagherAndrea Gallagher

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