A significant portion of the population is faced with the prospect of growing old alone, that is, not having family or friends around for support in times of trouble or when independent living is no longer practical. Moreover, as the baby boomer generation continues to age, the number of people aging without a family is likely to increase.
The prospect of aging alone can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. If you understand the challenges you may face and plan for them ahead of time, you may find that you can navigate this stage of life without fear or uncertainty.
What Is an Elder Orphan?
“Elder orphan” is a term that has been coined to describe people who are growing old alone, without the support of spouses, children, or other close family members or caretakers. It is difficult to assess just how many people in the United States are in this situation because many physicians do not inquire about patients’ marital, familial, or social status. However, a 2016 study estimated 22% of the population 65 and older are at risk of becoming elder orphans. To be clear, that figure represents the percentage of people at risk of becoming elder orphans, not the percentage of people who were aging without family at that time.
The study calculated older people’s risk of becoming elder orphans based primarily on whether or not they were married or had children since these are the relations that typically take on responsibility for caring for an older adult. An increasing number of Americans aged 45 to 63 are single, and fewer people in this age group have children. This means that the number of people at risk of becoming elder orphans could rise.
Nevertheless, that study fails to tell the whole story. Not everyone with a spouse or children is safe from becoming an elder orphan, and not everyone who lacks these relations is destined to become one. Adult children do not always live close enough to provide adequate support, or they may be estranged from older parents. One may find themselves aging alone following the death of a partner. On the other hand, people without partners or children may find other caretakers in siblings or trusted friends who live nearby and avoid becoming elder orphans.
What Challenges Do People Aging Alone Face?
People growing old without a family face several significant challenges:
- Health Problems: As you age, your risk for developing chronic health problems increases. These health conditions may affect your mobility and mental capacity, making it more difficult for you to care for yourself.
- Legal and Financial Affairs: There are significant financial and legal matters that can arise as you grow older. It can be difficult to find help with these if you have no children or close family members to assist.
- Isolation and Loneliness: Isolation and loneliness are not the same things, but they can relate to one another. Loneliness is a subjective feeling of being alone, while isolation is the objective state of having minimal contact with others. Whether occurring separately
or concurrently, isolation and loneliness put you at greater risk for cognitive decline.
What Can You Do To Prepare?
The difficulties involved with aging alone are significant but not insurmountable. The key is to recognize the challenges you may encounter and plan ahead of time to meet them. Here are some steps you can take early on:
- Build a Support System: If you do not have close family members, you need to build a network of people you can rely on. Your old friends may be deceased or may not live nearby, but there are many opportunities for seniors to make new friends through volunteering, classes, clubs, and other community resources for older people.
- Make Use of Technology: Many older people are intimidated by adopting smartphones and all the technological advances that come with them. However, some of these new or relatively new technologies can be very helpful to seniors. Communicating via phones and social media apps can keep you from becoming isolated by connecting you with virtual communities, while medical alert systems and monitoring devices allow you to access help in an emergency.
- Get Your Paperwork in Order: For many people aging alone, one of the biggest concerns is what happens if they become incapacitated. You should express your wishes clearly in a living will and choose someone you trust as a health care proxy. This does not need to be a family member; in fact, it may be in your interest to choose a friend who understands your wishes and lives nearby.
- Turn to the Professionals: If you don’t have family members who can help you sort out legal and financial matters, hire a professional trained in handling them, such as a lawyer or accountant.
Consider Senior Living Communities
One of the biggest concerns you may have when aging without a family is where you will live. An assisted living facility allows you to live among peers and access care and support when needed. Caring Places Management offers 20 communities across Washington and Oregon dedicated to serving the elderly.