The number of senior citizens who are single, isolated, and who lack a support system to help them deal with health issues and day-to-day living activities has been increasing, prompting the geriatric care industry to coin the term “Elder Orphan.”
Many factors contribute to the increase in Elder Orphans. People are living longer. Marriage rates in the U.S. have been declining for several decades. More couples are choosing to remain childless, and those that do have children are having fewer of them. As mobility has increased, more families have become dispersed as children moved away from home to pursue careers or as parents retired to warmer locales.
These changing demographic trends are aligning to create a perfect storm for an increase in senior isolation and a greater need for a network of caregivers that comes from outside the family.
Here are seven steps you can take to ensure that you will be better prepared and receive the assistance you need when your ability to live independently decreases. If you have older family members and friends, you can encourage them to take these steps and offer to assist them if appropriate.
- Cultivate your local network of friends. Become better acquainted with your neighbors, young and old. Nurture and strengthen existing relationships by inviting people over for visits or suggesting activities to do together. Make it a point to call, write to, or visit one friend every day. Be available to help others.
- Find ways to get out and meet people. It will be difficult and awkward to wait until you need help to start meeting people and making friends. By starting now, you will have many years to form bonds and build trust, and you will enjoy a more active social life in the meantime.
Find out if there are local exercise groups or activity clubs you can join. Take a class to learn something new and talk to your classmates. Look for opportunities to volunteer. If you have a local community center or senior center, learn what activities they offer.
- Become familiar with your local transportation options. When the time comes that you are unable to drive, don’t let that stop you from getting around. If your city has bus service, learn how to find route and fare information. Become familiar with ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft. Find out if your city or a local senior service agency offers transportation services. Compile a list of local friends you could call upon to give you a ride, if necessary.
- If you are considering moving, evaluate the services available to senior citizens in your potential destinations. You probably don’t need those services now, but someday you will. The Milken Institute released a thoroughly-researched free report on the Best Cities for Successful Aging in 2014 that identified the cities that are doing the most to make their cities livable for seniors.
- Designate your surrogate decision makers. You should have a Durable Power of Attorney which designates who can handle your legal and financial affairs on your behalf, a Durable Power of Attorney for medical decisions, and an Advanced Directive which specifies your end-of-life wishes.
Many people procrastinate in creating these documents because it’s unpleasant to think about growing older and becoming incapacitated, but the fact is that something unexpected could happen to you at any time. If you can’t afford an attorney, you can find forms to download on the internet.
You should also talk to the people who you designate as your surrogate decision makers to make sure they know what your wishes are and how to find your medical and financial information. Periodically review that information to keep it current.
- Make choices for retirement facilities before you need them. If you’re like most people, you probably hope to be able to remain in your home for the rest of your life. But the time may come when moving to an independent living, assisted living, or skilled nursing facility will be advisable or necessary.
While you are still healthy, visit the facilities in your area (or in the area of your choice) to learn what they offer, how much they cost, and what the ambiance is like. Decide which place will best meet your needs, and inform those closest to you of your choice.
It may be unpleasant to think about this topic, but it will be better for you to make this decision for yourself rather than leaving it to your caregivers to decide on short notice.
- When the need arises, don’t be afraid to ask for help. It may be difficult to accept that you are no longer as independent as you used to be and it’s uncomfortable to ask for help, especially for personal matters.But it’s pointless to suffer alone. Most people are willing to help, if asked.
Create a list of people you could ask for help, and match their talents and availability with your needs. By having a network of people you can call upon, you will avoid overburdening anyone.
Be specific about what you need when you ask someone to help, and be sure to thank them. An occasional thank-you note or lunch or small gift will be greatly appreciated.
The growing number of Elder Orphans is cause for concern. With awareness, thoughtful preparation and a willingness to address your future needs realistically, you can make plans and ensure that you will have sufficient support when the time comes that you need it.