Help! I’m at risk of becoming an ‘elder orphan’
Having to suddenly re-patriate to Canada to take care of my severely ill mother, I’ve been working on Finding Joy in the Meantime, says Alexia Economou. But I was taken aback recently, when I came across the cringe-worthy term ‘elder orphan’. As an only child, with no partner or children (I live in hope), it is quite likely I will become one. Half of my only-children friends seem destined to be solitary in old age. And our numbers are growing.
The 2017 census tells us that 2.7 million women (8% of the UK population) are living alone aged 45+. In Canada, one-third of senior women live alone. Most of them are not only children, but thanks to more and more women pursuing their own happiness, ‘grey divorces’ and ‘silver separations’ have been on the rise since the 1980s. In the US alone, 66% of divorces in couples aged 40-69 are initiated by women.
While these choices can be positive and empowering, relationship breakdowns sometimes lead to estrangement from families, or loss of existing social networks. And so, as they age, more people are ending up with no-one to take care of them should they require a significant surgery or suffer severe ill health. You don’t need to be an only-child to become an elder orphan…
Acceptance and a proactive attitude have become part of my ‘Finding Joy’ arsenal. My closest friends are back in the UK, so distance is a barrier to physical support – and my own extended family are busy with their own families’ care. Instead, I’m on the hunt for someone else that I trust enough to allocate power of attorney (for medical and finances, and to speak for me if incapacitated). Social media is helping keep me connected – an Elder Orphans Facebook group called Aging Alone, started in 2016, and immediately gained 5000 members. Together we can share information and lobby governments to recognise the unique needs of this demographic.
Already, some professional associations and healthcare workers have started creating programmes to educate people, or plan for their care better, which will help everyone as they age. Many are looking to Japan’s pioneering efforts. There, organised breakfasts and shopping meet-ups for the elderly helps keep the lone aging population active and engaged. Hmm…brunches and retail therapy with like-minded folk… now we’re talking joy.