Aging as a Solo Presents Unique Challenges

Over 30 years ago, researchers and geriatricians identified an “elder orphan” (sometimes called a “solo ager”), as a person aging alone with little support.

Little is known about “elder orphans,” people who don’t have parents, a spouse or family members. Decades ago, when families stayed closer to each other, a single or widowed person would remain connected to the extended family throughout their lives. However, today, as reported in Next Avenue’s insightful article titled “Identifying the Unique Challenges of Solo Agers,” many without families lack support and their needs are different than others aging at home.

The health care sector lumps seniors into four segments: 55-64, 65-74, 75-84 and 85 and older. Many assumptions are made about the people in these age brackets, regarding their ability to deal with concerns about housing, health, transportation, caregiving and safety, based solely on their age. However, if you don’t have a support system, your experience at age 66 may be closer to the challenges faced by someone in their mid-70s who does. 

Through the good works of social service workers, gerontologists and geriatricians, the unique challenges of the “solo ager” are being identified and addressed. A recent research project from the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work with the Elder Orphan Group has started to uncover data that clarifies many of the issues facing members of this unique population.

The Elder Orphan Group, a Facebook group started more than two years ago, has revealed that members who do have children feel most isolated and alone, when distance keeps them apart from their families. People who never had children were more adept at building social networks for themselves.

Having the support and comfort of someone to call when you’re sick in bed, is important for everyone. However, nearly 40% of those in the survey had no one to call. 

Several members of the group created a support team and text each other at predetermined times of the day. If they do not receive a response, there is a plan of action. This creates a sense of community, knowing that the seniors are watching out for each other.

One person and eight friends have taken the next step: they’ve committed to be there for each other in the instance of need and even to serve as legal guardians for each other. They have already consulted with an estate planning attorney to make certain that their plan can be carried out.

The need for help increases with age. However, interventions for making health care decisions are a major concern for solo agers. That was something family members did in the past. When you are aging alone, who should be called in an emergency? Who can make critical healthcare decisions?

Without a support structure in place, solo agers are at risk for lack of care, inadequate care or care that does not align with their own wishes.

Even among this group that is aware of their status and their special need for a network of support, 43% of members have not identified a healthcare decision maker. These are not easy decisions, and neither are decisions about naming an executor.

If you are a solo ager, consider your estate plan as part of your plan for aging successfully. An estate planning attorney will be able to help you identify who might serve in key roles, as well as ensuring that you have a health care directive, power of attorney and will.

Reference: Next Avenue Oct. 10, 2018) “Identifying the Unique Challenges of Solo Agers”

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