After presenting a webinar on our book Love’s Way: Living Peacefully With Your Family As Your Parents Age, I realized that little of what I discussed about having “The Conversation,” or transparency, or naming a healthcare proxy applies to persons with no family connections.
What recourse has an older adult with no one to serve as her power of attorney or executor of his will or someone to call in case of illness or medical emergency? Whom do these people (often referred to as “solo agers” or worse, “elder orphans”) rely on for these and countless other supports?
According to a 2016 study these issues confront an estimated 22 per cent of adults 65 years or older in the U.S.* Many live in isolation although they may reside in populated areas. Even if they don’t experience a major accident or chronic illness, what about their emotional and psychological health? Imagine: No spouse. No kids. No one to turn to if their health deteriorates.
Last month the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a study titled: “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System.”
Among the study’s findings:
- Nearly one quarter of Americans aged 65 and older who live in community settings are socially isolated, meaning they have few social relationships or infrequent social contact.
- A significant proportion of adults in the United States (35 percent of adults 45 and older, and 43 percent of adults aged 60 or older) report feeling lonely.
- Older Americans who reported being lonely are twice as likely to die prematurely than those who aren’t.
- Conclusion? Social isolation and loneliness represent significant health concerns for older adults that put them at higher risk of developing serious medical conditions.
While the NASEM study doesn’t address solo agers, I believe there must be significant overlap.
Where do these folks turn for support, companionship, for social survival?
- I found an Elder Orphan Facebook group with more than 8,500 members.
- Spread around the country are more than 240 villages in 41 states designed to help seniors age in place.**
- More than 600 Area Agencies on Aging throughout the 50 states aim to help vulnerable adults aged 60 and older “live with dignity and independence in their homes and communities for as long as possible.”
Important as these resources are, they are too few to dent the growth in solo agers, increased isolation among older Americans, and an aging U.S. population.
These facts may not signal a crisis, but certainly a critical need for innovative approaches to a serious issue.
*“Elder Orphans Hiding in Plain Sight: A Growing Vulnerable Population.” Maria T. Carney, et al. Oct. 2016. Current Gerontology and Geriatrics. Oct. 2016.