Now solidly middle-age and reflecting more upon my own mortality after the deaths of my parents, aging well is a top concern of mine.
Aging well means something different to everyone, but living independently with as little assistance as possible is a priority for me. I read an article about “elder orphans,” a term used to describe older people who live alone without a support network. As our society has moved away from the nuclear family model, and more people are deciding not to have children, the number of elder orphans will likely grow dramatically over the next several decades. The author of the article believes that baby boomers will also experience an uptick of elder orphans.
Not only are modern families smaller, but members are more likely to be spread out geographically, which can complicate caregiving situations. Women, traditionally the caregivers in the family unit, have demanding careers that limit their ability to be caregivers. (Though we know there are plenty of family caregivers who work full-time and care for a loved one, which can lead to burnout.)
Some people, like my mother, become an unwilling elder orphan after their spouse dies. My mother was able to take care of herself until the last few months of her life, but she did not enjoy living alone. She missed the daily companionship and experienced loneliness living in a rural community without friends or family nearby. Yet even when she was still in good health, I couldn’t convince her to visit the community senior center.
So how can we better take care of our elder orphans? I’ve written before about aging in place and how some communities are being proactive in addressing the needs of their aging population. Infrastructure needs like housing and transportation is integral, but so are communities with residents who have an awareness and dedication to helping their elders age safely. Programs like Meals on Wheels isn’t just about receiving food, but serves as the only regular safety check that many older people living alone receive. The frigid winter weather has encouraged people to check in on their elder neighbors, and that’s something we should be doing all year long.
While we can’t predict how our own health issues will impact our hopes of aging well, we can plant the seeds now to create a safe and welcoming environment for elder orphans.