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Aging & Society

What Solo Agers Could Do Today to Help Prepare for a Good Life Tomorrow

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In upcoming years, we’ll likely be hearing about a growing segment of the Baby Boomer generation: so-called “elder orphans.”

These are seniors who are unmarried and childless with no one named to act on their behalf as they age.

Nearly one in four boomers is at risk of becoming an elder orphan, according to a review conducted by Maria Torroella Carney, M.D., chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at the Northwell Health System in Great Neck, New York.

As Carney sees it, elder orphans are a vulnerable population. Without the support of a spouse or adult children, they may face a higher risk of medical issues, psychological problems, cognitive decline, and premature death. To lower these risks, elder orphans can build an alternative supportive network, Carney told the New York Times. “People who are aging alone need to make plans when they are independent and functional,” she said. “They need to learn about the resources in the community and the appropriate time to start using them.” 

Joy Loverde, author of the book Who Will Take Care of Me When I'm Old?, agrees with this proactive stance. At the same time, she’d like to suggest that we discard the term “elder orphans.”

“'Elder orphans' suggests we’re victims when we’re aging solo,” she says. “That boxes people into a category that likely doesn’t fit. I prefer to talk about solo agers. And, let’s keep in mind, at some point a great many married people become solo agers when they divorce or outlive a spouse. Nor is being a parent a guarantee that adult children will care for us as we age.”

Bottom line: we all need to put our own plans in place so we can live as we want for as long as possible.

Here are some tips on getting started: 

Be accepting of elderhood in all its implications. That means tackling a number of categories, from the fierce urgency of money and housing to a network of friendships.Don’t try to confront this on all at once, Loverde says. Instead, take a deep breath and decide which category you want to dive into first. Loverde offers more than two dozen free worksheets on her website that can help you start managing areas like financial planning, legal matters, medical care, emergency preparedness, insurance, and more.

Explore creative solutions to aging in place. New kinds of neighborhoods are sprouting up to support “aging in community.” These include cohousing communities that combine private residences with shared public spaces and communal activities, and grassroots villages, or nonprofit membership groups, where members provide services such as rides to medical appointments, computer help, and running errands like picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy.

Create a renewable web of friendships and relationships. Loverde, who is 67 and lives in Chicago, is a member of The Transition Network, a community of women 50 and older. “There are regular get-togethers,” she says, “and I learn from women who are younger than me and older than me.”  Meetup groups, including those for people over 50, are an easy way to expand your social circles and avoid the perils of isolation. You can find groups gathering for every possible interest, from hiking to happy hours, photography to French conversation.

Identify the members of your team. This might include a lawyer, geriatric care manager, and accountant or financial adviser. Loverde also recommends knowing who will act as your patient advocate if you need one. “Have that person in your back pocket,” she says. “It might be a professional advocate or a friend that you’ve designated and, perhaps, agreed to pay, to come to the hospital and argue on your behalf if you’re not able to do that for yourself.”

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