In Becoming Sage, I wrote a bit about elder orphans. These are singles who are aging without a family network of support:
At 51, Keisha has never been married. “My twenties and thirties were marked by so much sorrow about my single state. I battled envy as I attended my friends’ weddings, bought them baby gifts, and wrestled with my longing for God’s gift of a mate and all I hoped would go with it: physical intimacy, companionship, spiritual partnership, and financial stability. As I moved into my forties, I came to terms with my singleness. (Well, most days, anyway!) I’ve poured my energy into building a good life and career for myself, spending time with friends, and developing my relationship with Christ. But now with both of my parents gone and my only sibling, a divorced brother, living across the country, I am staring down the prospect of aging alone, and it’s more than a little concerning to me. I’ve never felt more single than I do right now.”
Keisha’s concern is shared by many of her divorced and widowed friends, particularly those who’ve never had children. According to senior advocacy organization AARP, one in five. people over age 65 is an “elder orphan,” someone aging alone without a family to oversee and advocate for their care. Twenty three percent of Boomers will be joining this group as they age, and there is no reason to believe these numbers won’t stay steady or increase as Gen X moves toward retirement.
A U.S. News and World Report story offered some stats about who is caring for childless elder orphans like Keisha:
Not having children doesn’t mean you won’t have any loved ones to take care of you. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that an average of about 41 million unpaid people cared for an aging family member or friend during 2015 and 2016. Among those caregivers, 41.6 percent cared for a parent, about a quarter cared for another related person like a sibling or an aunt,16.7 percent cared for a grandparent, just over 16 percent cared for a friend or neighbor and less than 8 percent cared for a spouse or partner.
What worries Dr. Carla Perissinotto is not whether a particular family member or friend takes care of you later in life, but simply whether there’s anyone to do the job. “It haunts me,” says Perissinotto, associate chief for geriatric clinical programs at the University of California—San Francisco. “We see more and more older adults who are all alone.”
There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to a complex issue like this. Just as we need to create financial plans for our “golden years”, so we need to do some strategic thinking about building a care plan for ourselves as we age, especially if we’re elder orphans. A big part of that means identifying both friends and local community resources who might be able provide practical assistance for everyday activities like doctor visits, shopping, and cooking. Especially for those in failing health, social isolation is a very real threat to their well-being and safety.
I worked for a home health care agency for a couple of years as a caregiver. The people I served, which were predominately single women, had the means to pay someone like me to drive them to the doctor, go grocery shopping, and help with basic household tasks. I knew that was the last stop for them before they needed to go into assisted living or a nursing home. As much as they needed the practical assistance I provided, I discovered fairly quickly that the main thing these women needed was friendship and meaningful conversation. Their old social networks had decayed over the years as friends died and moved away, and their own health issues left them homebound. These women had the means to pay someone like me to come into their homes to help.
But many (most!) of us cannot afford this kind of care. So this month, as we focus on singleness at midlife here at the PerGen blog, I’m raising this issue to help each one of us reading these words to look around you and take heed of the elder orphans in your community. (I now live in an over-55 community, and they’re all around me, but it’s probably not the case for you.) There are certainly ministry opportunities to older singles through your church or various community agencies. And there may be someone you know who needs practical help. But even more than that, there may be someone who needs a team member, which is another way of saying “friend”.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
This article is so thought-provoking. It inspires me to look for the “elder orphans” around me. As a church we are called by Jesus to love and care for one another. And this demographic will likely increase in number as time goes on. Hopefully we will learn to be there for them.
Thank you! – Michelle
This is what I am facing! I am so glad someone is writing about it. I never married, I’m 62, the rest of my family has died off, and what’s worse, I have a disability, but keep getting denied disability payments from Social Security. I can only work part time, and because of all this, I live below the poverty line. I have reached out to the churches here in Los Angeles, and unfortunately, they are very youth driven, so I am generally ignored. It’s very frustrating to be treated like I’m invisible, and not given any help at all.
I’m so sorry for what you’re facing, Arlene. Words don’t feel sufficient at all. I wish I could do something to help you. – Michelle
I so agree that older folks need friendship and social interaction as much as they need physical help. Just because they are in a facility doesn’t mean they are receiving that interaction. We watched two aides talk to each other over my mother-in-law while attending to her needs, without looking her in the eye or speaking to her. Another aide watched TV while shoveling food into my m-i-l’s mouth. A home school group sent a gift bag and colored pictures for her, but it would have meant so much more if a few of them had actually come to her room. Even when I went over, I had to watch out for a tendency to feel more useful when I could bustle about her room, pick up, etc. (which actually embarrassed her), when what she needed most was someone to just sit down and look her in the eye and visit with her. As she lost the ability to speak, people spoke less to her. But she was still there–she just couldn’t communicate any more. We eventually brought her home for the last five years of her life. I think if we hadn’t done that, she would have died within weeks as she was down to 90 pounds.
But the elder orphans don’t have that option and don’t have folks checking up on them and making sure they are cared for. We need to at least befriend them and pray about what else we can do.
I’m so sorry for what your mother-in-law experienced. She was blessed to have you.
“Elder orphan” is an interesting term. Though she has children, and her parents died in old age, a dear friend of mine has said she felt like an orphan after her parents died. How much greater is that aloneness with no husband or children to provide a safety net.
I wonder what will happen with our current generation of young adults. Many have decided against childbearing out of selfishness or self-realization, never considering how it may affect them in old age.
Thank you for this thoughtful post. I’ve pre-ordered your book and look forward to reading more!
Well said. Thank you, Michelle.
This couldn’t come at at a better time, with COVID 19, which drives home how important it is for everyone to make plans for “those years”. As many in my circle are doing, I’m sheltering in place, but feel so inadequate to meet the needs of the elder orphans in our community. I’m reaching out as I am able, but virtual can never replace having a real person to share a meal or give a hug. I hope this will at least be a wakeup call for us all, “when this is over” to tune into the needs of older people around us.