The future of America’s “elder orphans” is getting increasing attention as we live longer, many of us without the support of a spouse, children, or other close relatives. The 2012 U.S. Census reveals that about one third of adults ages 45 to 63 are single, a 50% increase from 1980. About 19% of women ages 40-44 have no children, as compared to 10% in 1980. More women than men are likely to stay, or become single. About 80% of women are single after age 85.
Suggestions for “elder orphans”
Elder orphans obviously face many challenges, not the least of which is who will care for them as they age. Maria Torroella Carney, Chief of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and North Shore University Hospital in New York, has been speaking out on the issue. She suggests those at risk of aging without a spouse or children should start thinking about lifestyle changes that address these challenges. Some of her suggestions appearing in a USA Today article are:
- Identify an individual who can help make health care decisions for you. It could be a friend or a family member. Have a health care surrogate drawn up for you.
- Think about where you will be living. Can you get to stores and activities if you can no longer drive?
- Check out delivery services for medicines, groceries, etc.
- Check out resources such as recreational facilities, classes and senior centers so that you can be socially active.
- Think about relocating to be near those who can be supportive.
- Consider “mending fences” with estranged family members, and reaching out to more distant relatives to establish relationships.
Online support group
Elder advocate and author Carol Marak, herself aging without a spouse, partner or children, has put together a virtual community for elder orphans. Her Facebook support group welcomes what Marak calls the “solo ager” – individuals over age 55 without a spouse, and who do not receive any support from offspring. In a recent interview on National Public Radio’s Here and Now, Marak says the Facebook group involves people “…mostly just sharing what they’re feeling each day. We discuss transportation options, emotional things that might be affecting us, how we are feeling about not having children — although most of us are grateful to not have children, because we have members who have been really estranged from their families, which is hard. So, it’s just a great place to come and feel accepted, and find friendship and connection. What’s so wonderful is that when you start a discussion, you’re always going to have someone participate. And you can also pull it offline if you wish, and private message someone, and then take it from there. Many of us are breaking off and starting our own face-to-face groups, which is really, I think, the next step for all of us.”
As of September 2017, the group had 6,357 members. You can listen to Marak’s radio interview here.