"Elder orphan" is a term used by medical professionals to describe individuals living alone with little to no support system. In a research article published in Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research, in July 2016, "Elder Orphans Hiding in Plain Sight: A Growing Vulnerable Population," Maria T. Carney, M.D., and her colleagues**,** sought to help clinicians identify adults with multiple chronic diseases who are aging alone and are geographically distant from family or friends. Identifying these individuals might well increase the availability of services for this population as a whole.
One way that HeathCentral can assist is to bring awareness of this issue to the general public. We interviewed, by email, Carol Marak, an activist in the field of elder orphans, to provide us with some insights. Marak earned a Fundamentals of Gerontology Certificate from the USC Davis School of Gerontology and advocates on behalf of older adults and family caregivers. She is the editor at seniorcare.com and launched a Facebook group for people over 55 who age alone.
HealthCentral (HC): Carol, can you tell us more about the size of this population of elders?
Carol Marak: Certainly! According to the U.S. Census, on average, 28 percent of the people over the age of 65 live alone. The number continues to increase. According to the 2012 Census, 19 percent of women aged 40-44 have no children, as compared to about 10 percent in 1980, and one-third of the people between 45 and 63 are single — a 50 percent increase from 1980. Seniorcare.com collated the U.S. Census data for 8,000 cities. The proportion living alone increases with advanced age. Among women aged 75 and over, for example, almost half (46 percent) live alone.
HC: Many elders need more services than younger people, but for elders with families their loved ones can often step in to fill some gaps. What are the most pressing needs for elder orphans who have no families to help them?
CM: They need affordable housing, public transportation, accessibility to medical facilities, and social connectedness.
HC: How can individual people assist this segment of our aging population?
CM: The general population needs to recognize that people aging and living alone do exist. Dr. Carney says it well when she says, "elder orphans, hiding in plain sight."
We are your neighbors, church members, and community residents. Please open your lives to those who age alone. Providers like hospitals, health care providers, city officials, and local and state government agencies need to identify the needs of the population and to identify programs and resources that meet these needs.
HC: Are there resources already available to help elder orphans?
CM: Yes. Before retiring I worked as an Information and Referral Specialist with the Area Agency on Aging. I also volunteered for 2-1-1. Every state has an Elder Helpline and 2-1-1 is a nationwide phone number. Both have a large database of resources: Food, housing, transportation, and home repair services can be found, but so much more is needed.
HC: Your Facebook group seems successful. Is peer support helping people cope with their situation?
CM: Yes. I think we can help each other by sharing our stories and offering support and encouragement. Hearing how other people handle these challenges can be useful and inspiring, but they also help by sharing information on resources. Although resources vary by location, knowing about the housing options, transportation, legal aid, food banks and other resources in one area can be valuable information for all. Knowing what options are available and where to find them can make a difference in quality of life.
I don't think the definition "orphan" excludes those with some means of getting basic needs met. I think it includes anyone who doesn't have a support system to help them age or get their needs met, such as during a medical episode. Money can't buy everything, including a ride home from a medical procedure or even a visitor to the hospital or someone to shop for groceries.
HC: I agree that these needs aren’t unique to those elders who have no support system at all. Many elders may have family members, but they live far apart or might not get along. Also, we live in a time when it's common for both spouses to work so there’s often no one available to help on a routine basis, even if there are adult children nearby.
Thank you so much for sharing information with us, Carol. Elder orphans and, indeed, all elders need support. Your work is one important part of bringing about that awareness.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver having spent over two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a longtime newspaper columnist and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” as well as a contributor to several additional books on caregiving and dementia. Her websites can be accessed at www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook Minding Our Elders.