When there’s no one left to take care of you
Every morning Charlotte Kline and her neighbor email each other after they wake up.
Kline, a vibrant, independent 83-year-old from Williamsburg, Va., lost her husband a few years ago. Her neighbor is also a widow.
“This way we know if each other is up and about,” says Kline. “If I don’t hear from her by 10 a.m., then I will call her.”
Like Kline and her neighbor, a growing number of the senior population lives alone. A study by Pew Research Center estimates that 12 million Americans age 65 and older live by themselves — more than half of whom are women. That number is expected to increase as millions of Baby Boomers are set to retire, essentially creating an entirely new demographic.
While Kline has the support of a grandson who lives with her as well as a strong network of friends and neighbors — many will or already have no one, leading to the question: “Who will take care of me when I’m older?”
What’s happening to Baby Boomers?
Baby Boomers, a term that refers to those born between 1946 and 1964, make up a large percentage of the population — nearly a quarter. Their life expectancy is greater than any generation before them, and unlike their parents, boomers didn’t have nearly as many children.
Pew Research found the rate of childlessness among boomers is nearly 20 percent, double what it had been in previous generations. The U.S. Government Accountability Office predicts that by 2020, the number of older Americans living alone with no living children or siblings will be 1.2 million — practically double what it was in 1990.
In fact, 22 percent of people 65 and over are either what’s being called “elder orphans” or are at risk of becoming one, according to research by Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y.
About 10 years ago, Dr. Sara Zeff Geber, a baby boomer and life-planning and retirement-transition expert based in California, noticed how much time her friends spent caring for their aging parents. “They would fly all over the country to help with doctor appointments,” she recalls. “It was really disruptive to their lives, but they did it. Then I thought, who’s going to do that for us?”
Her answer — no one. She and her husband, who have no children, would be alone.
Helping our elders
Geber’s realization led her on a crusade to understand the unique challenges that such a large percentage of the country would soon be facing. She’s written a book about the topic, gives presentations and makes it her job to help “Solo Agers” — a term she coined herself — to prepare financially, socially and medically for their later years.
Geber isn’t the only one who felt a call to action. There are Facebook groups, websites, neighborhood and church groups, federally funded programs, community organizations and senior centers that have been set up specifically to support those who are aging alone.
In Williamsburg, where the number of people over 60 is double the national average, Rick Jackson, executive director of Riverside Health System’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health (CEALH), is constantly thinking of ways to better serve the aging community. He’s concerned about statistics that report 70 percent of solo agers haven’t even begun thinking about who will take care of them as they age.
If you’re alone, and there’s no one to reach out to, and you’re aging and there are these inevitable declines in health, now what?” says Jackson.
One of the reasons CEALH exists is to help aging adults remain as independent as possible by providing them with or connecting them to programs and services they may need. Some of those services are free while others are offered at a sliding scale.
“We don’t want older adults sitting in their home with the curtains drawn — we want them out at their church or synagogue or garden club,” Jackson says.
Connecting seniors to services
One free service, Senior Care Navigation, offers anyone 55 or older access to trained advisors who can answer questions and coordinate services such as counseling, home and lawn care, driver rehabilitation and medical management, among many others. The navigators are also available to help family members — or even neighbors — who have concerns about older loved ones but aren’t sure what to do.
“One time a man called because he wanted to go on a fishing trip but didn’t have anyone to go with him,” says Kim Weitzenhofer, director of community relations for CEALH. “We asked around and connected him with a senior center that had a fishing club.”
Kline said she feels lucky to live in a community that embraces seniors, and she’s been careful to surround herself with support. Though she lived alone for a few years after her husband passed away, her grandson now lives with her while he attends college.
If her grandson is away and she needs a too-high lightbulb changed, has a broken doorbell or needs some bushes pruned, Kline can call on a group of volunteer handymen in her neighborhood who will gladly fix whatever is broken. She does her part by helping deliver meals to neighbors who have just returned from the hospital.
Getting the word out
A big challenge is how to let the aging population know that there are programs and services available to them, says Diane Hartley, vice president of care coordination for the Peninsula Agency on Aging (PAA). PAA is a non-profit organization that advocates for and provides free services for seniors and caregivers — no matter their income level.
“It’s not easy — you reach them through primary care, but other than that it’s about us doing outreach,” agrees Jackson. “We are forever thinking about how to let seniors know what’s available to them. Because, at the end of the day, it’s about relief of suffering.”