Elder Orphans – Changing Their World this Holiday Season

According to AARP, more than 20 percent or 8.6 million people older than 65 are now, or are at risk of becoming, an elder orphan — a senior citizen who does not have a spouse, significant other or children to help care for them as they age.
A hand on an elderly man's shoulder at holiday time

“Elder orphans,” “senior orphans,” or “solo agers.”

By Tim Mitchell, Senior Care Partners P.A.C.E.

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving this year?”  It seemed like a good conversation starter and a very natural question to ask just before the holiday.  “Oh, just sitting at home by myself like every other day,” came the monotone response.  He continued talking in a less than enthusiastic voice, “It’s the same thing I do every holiday.”

The sound of reality was deafening.  He will be sitting at home by himself while the vast majority of people across the country will be enjoying a family meal together on Thanksgiving Day.  It doesn’t seem right, but unfortunately, that will be the story for thousands of elderly this holiday season.

They have been referred to as “elder orphans,” “senior orphans,” or “solo agers.”  

The American Geriatrics Society calls these individuals “unbefriended.”  According to AARP, more than 20 percent or 8.6 million people older than 65 are now, or are at risk of becoming, an elder orphan — a senior citizen who does not have a spouse, significant other or children to help care for them as they age.  Unfortunately, that number increases when you consider those who have adult children who, for various reasons, are unable or unwilling to help care for them.  And, this number is estimated to increase steadily until it doubles by the year 2050.

These elder orphans have no one to help them with major life decisions as they age.  There is no one to take care of then when they are sick or incapacitated.  There is no one to help them manage daily chores, including shopping and writing checks to pay bills. In a worst-case scenario, someone who doesn’t know them will be tasked with making emergency medical decisions on their behalf.

Consider the fact that by 2035, people who are 65 and older will outnumber those under 18 for the first time in history.  That’s only a mere 15 years away and the country is not prepared for the reality of more elder orphans.  Anthony Sahlender, an executive associate at the Maryland Department of Aging, says elder orphans are a growing concern, especially “when people don’t have the ability to make medical decisions.”

While there are many long-term logistical issues related to caring for these solo agers, there is also the immediate concern of isolation. 

Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.  People who find themselves unexpectedly alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility, and lack of transportation are at particular risk.

Conversely, studies also show that people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose. These activities seem to help maintain their well-being and may even improve their cognitive function.

Senior Care Partners P.A.C.E. recognizes the need to provide socialization opportunities for the elder orphans in our community. 

Our day centers have welcomed many individuals who, prior to becoming a participant, had almost no contact with others.  In many cases, as a result, they had experienced various medical conditions, were suffering from depression, and had become socially withdrawn and would only reluctantly talk to others.  However, after connecting with other seniors in the day center and interacting with our team of healthcare professionals, many have experienced very positive and dramatic transformations in their socialization skills and have also shown improvements in their physical condition.

Yet, helping elder orphans requires the effort of more than just a few organizations specializing in the care of older adults.  It takes the concern of an entire community.  As we approach the holiday season, please ask yourself this question, “Who do I know that may be an elder orphan?”  It may be a family member, a neighbor or someone you’ve heard others talk about.  Can you plan your holiday a little differently this year to include them at your table?  Your hospitality may make a significant difference in their life.

Remember, “Helping one person may not change the world, but it might change the world for one person.”  Whose world can you change with a simple act of hospitality this holiday season?   

At Senior Care Partners P.A.C.E. it is our desire to change the world for each person we serve.  Our care model eliminates the elder orphan issue for our participants by providing socialization opportunities and a strategically personalized plan of care.  Possibly you know of an elder orphan we can help.  If so, please call us at (269) 441-9319 or visit www.seniorcarepartnersmi.org.

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