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Planning Ahead for Aging Solo

You may have heard the term “elder orphans” during the last year or two. This term was coined to describe seniors who do not have a spouse or children who can assist them as their care needs change. It’s estimated that 22 percent of older adults today fall in this category, and the number will rise.

It’s important to note that many of these seniors dislike the term, pointing out that “orphan” is a term for children. They prefer the terms “solo agers,” “kinless seniors” or “single agers.”
Whatever term we use, it’s clear that more and more people will fall into that category as they need care in later years. Four demographic changes are behind this trend:

  1. People are living longer. In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that by the year 2030, 20 percent of people living in the U.S. will be older than 65. Even with a slight dip in life expectancy recently, due to the opioid epidemic, today’s seniors are living longer—but their later years are likely to be marked with disability to a slightly greater degree than their parents due in part to the greater rate of obesity.
  2. Baby boomers had fewer children than did their parents—many had none at all. The availability of birth control, concerns about overpopulation and the changing role of women all contributed to a lower birth rate. Census Bureau demographer Jonathan Vespa said, “The aging of baby boomers means that within just a couple decades, older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. By 2035, there will be 78 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.4 million under the age of 18.”
  3. More people are divorced or never married. The divorce rate for people age 55-64 has more than doubled in the past 25 years, meaning seniors are less likely to have a spouse to help care for them. There is also an increase in people who never married or partnered. More seniors than ever are living alone.
  4. Seniors may be “orphaned” by distance. Increased mobility means some families drift apart over the years; fewer elders feel that they can rely on their adult children or siblings for care.

For solo agers, it’s so important to plan ahead. 

Being in denial about the changes aging can bring could mean that a solo ager would have fewer choices and less support when they need it. Experts suggest creating a care plan far in advance of need. Here are things to consider:

Arrange for people who can help. Some solo agers ask a trusted friend to serve as their financial and/or health representative. Others may have a more distant relative who could be called upon—a cousin, niece or sibling. Others engage the services of aging life care professionals (also called geriatric care managers) to coordinate and oversee their care. Financial planning is vital, because care is expensive. An elder law attorney and financial advisers can help.

Think about where you would want to live if your care needs changed. Most seniors want to “age in place,” remaining in their own homes even as they need help. Evaluate whether your home would allow for that, and what modifications might make it a better fit. And learn all you can about senior living options.

Make a plan for care. We all hope we’ll remain healthy and independent well into our later years. But odds are we’ll be living with mobility, sensory or cognitive challenges. Put advance directives into place and name a health care proxy. Learn about the various types of senior care communities, home care and other support services. Many solo agers are selecting continuing care retirement communities, where they can receive care on site if needed.

Have a financial checkup. Have you saved enough to pay for care? Have you arranged for a trusted individual to help you manage your money in the event you can no longer do so? Make this decision carefully; sadly, seniors can be at high risk of financial elder abuse.

Think about your social needs. Many single baby boomers consider their coworkers their most important social connections—what happens when you retire? Having a large circle of close friends can be as supportive as having adult children. But we need to make and nurture those connections. Start setting up social networks early, through volunteer service, a purposeful collection of friends, and all-important intergenerational connections.

What are solo agers doing today?

Today, many solo agers are devising living plans that work for them. More baby boomers are banding into “villages”—communities in which seniors can age in place while contracting together for services such as home repairs, transportation and home care services. Home sharing is another option, with seniors living together or perhaps providing housing for students or young relatives in exchange for assistance. Some seniors are forming “chosen families” with whom to grow old.

One more thing to remember: Even if we believe that our family members will step in to provide care as we grow older, that might not turn out to be the case! Things change. We could lose our spouse to death or divorce. By the time we need care, our adult children may be of an age when they have their own care needs. The caregiving cohort will be spread a lot thinner in the future! The AARP predicts that while seniors today have an average pool of seven family members who can help, by midcentury, that number will drop to fewer than three. It’s not uncommon, for example, for an only child to be supporting the care needs of divorced parents, their stepparents and maybe their grandparents as well.

This is a good reminder of the need to advocate for elder care supports at every level. “We have a sense that this will be a growing population as society ages and life expectancy increases, and our government and society need to prepare how to advocate for this population,” says Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, a geriatrician with North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York who has done extensive research on elder orphans. “There is potentially no structure to address this population, as this population is hidden right before us. Our goal is to highlight that this is a vulnerable population that is likely to increase, and we need to determine what community, social services, emergency response and educational resources can help.”

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