Elder orphans: Aging alone

Elder orphans will demand different services to fill different needs

By Susan Hyatt

New trends generate new terms and one you are going to hear a lot more about is elder orphans.

They are Baby Boomers who are childless or estranged from their families, and living without a partner to care for them. There is little research on them in Canada or elsewhere, but we do know from the 2016 Canadian census that 33 per cent of seniors aged 65 and older are women who live alone, and 17.5 per cent are men who live alone.

Also, there is a growing number of ‘grey divorces’ in Canada or, as the Vanier Institute calls them, ‘silver separations.’ These are divorces among elderly couples. Data for the period 1985 to 2005 shows a gradual increase in divorce rates for men aged 50-54 years from 7.2 to 11 per cent, and for women, from 5.4 to 8.9 per cent.

The Vanier Institute cites the work of U.S. sociologist Susan Brown of Bowling Green State University who sees an emerging trend among divorced couples aged 40-69, with women initiating the divorce 66 per cent of the time. A late-in-life divorce can have significant financial impact, and the changes in economic security can be difficult for women, especially if they live alone. Her research focuses on family events and the transitions made throughout life with an emphasis on the implications of the rapid transformation of family life for the health and well-being of adults and children.

Why should we be concerned about elder orphans? These people can become socially and/or physically isolated without any family member or caregiver around to help them. They may be reluctant to appoint Power(s) of Attorney to help them if they are incapacitated and cannot speak for themselves. And with no family or partner they may not have told anyone about their express wishes or choices known where it concerns making decisions about future care or future living accommodations.

Today church congregations and healthcare providers are talking about elder orphans. There is worry in the community that this group is vulnerable, and as they reach their later years they are susceptible to all kinds of scams and elder abuse. Even identity theft. Planning is crucial at all stages of life and especially crucial for people in this group. Here are some important questions to ask:

  • How should elder orphans start to plan ahead?
  • Who can help them should they have serious surgery or a terminal illness?
  • What happens to their assets after they die if they don’t have a will? (Today 48 per cent of Canadians do not have a will, never mind one that is up to date.)

Elder orphans are more prone to suffer from loneliness and social isolation if they have no family and are not part of a vibrant community. This is why they must get their legal issues cleared up, and this may require an estates attorney who is familiar with estate planning. This will involve drawing up a will, and drafting Powers of Attorney in the event that one day you are incapable of making decisions for yourself. Then there are such matters as shopping for basic daily items, managing medical appointments, and staying active and social. The latter point can be especially daunting for an elderly person aging alone.

In the United States an Elder Orphans’ Facebook Group got started in 2016 and over the first year it gained 5,000 new members. Today it serves as a support and self-help group, and for many of these people it may be the only support they get.

“Most of the members are very grateful to have found us and realize that there are so many more like them,” says Carol Marak, who started the group. She is a recognized authority on older adults aging alone and an editor at www.seniorcare.com.

“We all share the same grievances, the same hardships and challenges,” Carol says. “We give support to people who are going into surgery or who have had an emergency or some sort of medical event, and I cannot tell you how supportive that feels for the people who are going through an incident like that.”

Looking to the future with a growing aging population, consideration will have to be given to services that elder orphans will need. Who will act as their Powers of Attorney if they have no one? There needs to be a trusted community of people to whom an elder orphan can turn when they need help. For example, churches have elder orphans in the congregation, but they may also have retired police officers, firefighters, medical specialists, not to mention lawyers, who can lend a helping hand. Why not set up a group of these people within the congregation? Another benefit of this is that such friends and trusted peers of elder orphans can serve as an oversight of the appointed Power of Attorney to ensure that the person’s best interests are addressed.

Likewise for the healthcare system. It is a prime time to be considering what the options are for smart aging. The fact is that many Canadians will age alone as elder orphans. Professional associations of healthcare workers could start addressing these concerns through regular education sessions, and include eldercare issues in all their discussions that involve preparation for retirement.

Canada has a greying workforce. We need to think about elder orphans and plan ahead. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention and early discussion is worth a pound of cure.

Susan Hyatt is the CEO of Silver Sherpa Inc. Her company offers clients a Personalized Living Plan™ for ‘smart aging’.


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