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‘Elder Orphans’ Have a Harder Time Aging in Place

Why we need more services for those without family


Thriving in a place that’s safe and comfortable, surrounded by cozy memories, is a natural desire of older adults. We treasure independence and want a space to call our own, and we prefer that place to reflect the person we’ve become. We understand that aging bids compromise, and once 65 hits, the changes bring reminders that we’re no longer the same. We don’t move as quickly, we don’t multitask as well, nor do we easily adapt. Those are the simple cues. As we age, the physical and mental challenges delivered through loss, immobility and dependence are the ones that put us at higher risks.

Who Is an Elder Orphan?

However, the effects of aging land harder on an “elder orphan,” because the worry and concern of “what will become of me if I can’t care for myself?” triples when no one is around. An elder orphan has no adult children, spouse or companion to rely on for company, assistance or input. About 29 percent (13.3 million) of noninstitutionalized older persons live alone. The majority of those are women (9.2 million, vs. 4.1 million men).

The stresses of living alone will likely worsen for the boomers as a group since we have fewer children, more childless marriages and more divorces compared to earlier generations.

I am an elder orphan — on my own to decide where, and how, I age.

I am alone with my dog and don't know where to turn. I fear becoming homeless, and I am scared to death.

— member of Elder Orphan Facebook group

And it’s the reason I launched the Elder Orphan Facebook group. In just a few months, it’s grown to over 1,100 members. Each person joined for different reasons, but primarily to find community, connection and support — my particular motives for starting the group. Here, we talk about what’s on our minds and state our doubts.

Common Topics for Elder Orphans

These are a few topics that come up regularly among the members:

Legal and care issues: “My husband and I are over 70, and by every measure we are and will continue to be elder orphans. We have no children and absolutely no family or living friends who can attend to our financial affairs and to care for us when we need it. We have read articles on the topics, but they end with ‘find a trusted friend or family member to oversee your affairs.’ We have neither. So, can anyone recommend a group or entity who could handle our predicament? We would like to get a mechanism in place so that we feel secure.”

Affordable housing: “I am 69, and dependent solely on Social Security. I am losing my home after 30 years. I have a mobile home which is my haven, but I can no longer afford it. I have tried all government agencies and found no one who handles mobile home loans. I am alone with my dog and don’t know where to turn. I fear becoming homeless, and I am scared to death. Has anyone here ever been through a foreclosure? How did you handle it and what did you do, step by step? I do not want to go into a senior high-rise and was looking into co-housing. I want to go into some independent living but don’t know where to start or what to do. I hope someone could help me.”

Transportation: “I truly experienced the ‘elder orphan’ dilemma during the recent surgery. I had to use a voluntary car service to get to the hospital only to find out the ride was not able to bring me home. I didn’t tolerate the surgery as well as had been anticipated, so I ended up being admitted because there wasn’t anyone to care for me overnight.”

I’m grateful for the group members and happy to report that concerns like these get handled quickly with useful advice and tips. However, since aging comes with sets of unique happenstances, it’s clear that we need services and supports at the local level to age successfully.

Local City Strategies

We need city leaders and policymakers across the country to develop solutions to improve older people’s lives in communities. With the graying of America, entrepreneurs and business leaders could benefit by seeking opportunities prompted by this massive longevity economy. It’s the local level that holds answers for the elder orphans and the aging populace.

The Milken Institute is answering that call. They work with mayors’ offices to help build awareness of what’s needed for residents to age successfully. Read about the community programs that some cities have taken on to encourage healthy aging in Milken’s Best Cities for Successful Aging.

We all want positive results when growing older. We want it for ourselves, and we want it for our parents and grandparents. I am thrilled to see an organization dedicating efforts on issues and desires that mirror the needs of those who age alone:

  • To live in places that are safe, affordable and comfortable
  • To be healthy and happy
  • To have financial security and be part of a healthy economy
  • To have living arrangements that suit our needs
  • To have mobility and access to convenient transportation systems
  • To receive respect for our wisdom and experience
  • To be physically, intellectually and culturally enriched, and connected to families, friends and communities

The Milken initiative is not about the best, or least expensive, place to retire. Instead, they work with local leaders to enhance communities so the aging population can thrive — the same desires I hear daily in the group.

But there’s much more needed to instigate dialogue among thought leaders, decision-makers and stakeholders. The demand for age-friendly communities has far surpassed the current solutions.

Giving Credit to Well-Deserving Cities

The three cities that rank highest in Milken’s criteria:

  • Provo, Utah
  • Madison, Wis.
  • Omaha, tied with Council Bluffs, Iowa

All four rank high to varying degrees in medical health care systems, active lifestyles, vibrant economies, and enriched environments that help older adults remain safe, secure and enjoy a sense of community. However, public transportation needs work and affordable housing ranks low. Accessibility, low cost of living, and healthy lifestyles remain a challenge as well.

I encourage local leaders to become involved in programs like the “Best Cities for Successful Aging in Place,” because only 140 have taken the pledge to participate with the Milken Institute to date. And it’s critical that they do because too many seniors live in the grips of isolation, unaffordable housing, unhealthy situations and immobility.

Here’s how I know: the research from the city data across the country shows that thousands of older adults receive nominal Social Security benefits and live on average incomes. However, for those who are lucky enough to own a home, many still have mortgages. For older adults who rent, in some cities, close to half don’t own a vehicle, and fewer have jobs. The data illustrates the need for local services and more attention from policymakers and thought leaders.

Problems Even Here

Even the highest-ranking cities have challenges. Two examples:

Madison: Residents 65+ represent 10 percent of its population, and 34 percent of those live alone. While 73 percent own their home, 36 percent of those have a mortgage. The remaining 27 percent rent.

Council Bluffs: Residents 65+ represents 13 percent of the population, and of those, 33 percent live alone. Seventy-three percent own their home, and 31 percent have a mortgage. Twenty-seven percent rent.

If cities could provide the much-needed services like public transportation and even provide simple things like sidewalks, then people could get up and move around. Maybe then, chronic diseases would decrease and we’d have few seniors who become isolated and lonely.

I feel confident that organizations like the Milken Institute will hold city officials’ feet to the fire so older Americans can truly age successfully at home.

For those of you aging alone and in need of support, please consider joining the Elder Orphan Facebook group. It is a closed group; your privacy will be respected.

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