Photo: Susan Bell at Lucid Representation

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.

18 thoughts on “Help! I’m at risk of becoming an ‘elder orphan’

  1. I hope I won’t be an elder orphan , but I do think about life when we’re old and frail. Top of my with list would be stylish urban elder care homes – living with friends not random strangers, nice food and with decor that doesn’t make you want to stay under the duvet forever….

  2. I have thought about this alot. My mother was lucky, she had me to care for her as she aged but I have no children. I often wonder what will happen to me when I get to her age. . .

  3. I think to rely on your children to ‘take care of you’ when you age and become less able, is a terrible burden on them. They could well be dreading it, their partners too. Put them out of their misery right away and tell them you have it all in hand and like the ‘elder orphans’ put together a package for when a time may come that you need more support. That way your family are free to help if they want to. The elder orphans can teach us all a thing or two about taking our independence and self care through the next ten, twenty years with style and dignity and maybe we can all share houses that positively reek of chic, play music we can rock to and serve food we can enjoy together as one big happy community. Taking care of each other is my goal, while I may lose my sight, mobility or other faculties I am happy to share what ever I have left!

  4. Very interesting topic. My grandmother developed many close and supportive relationships in her 90’s while residing at a Indep living center. My mom is living her life fully, alone in her home and is engaged with her friends. My husband and I adopted two infants when I was 46 and 49. I realize there are no guarantees in life. We plan on encouraging our children to live their lives and set up our future so they will not need to care for aging parents. Best thing we can do is enjoy our lives, build friendships, do the best we can, stay healthy and positive. And retail therapy doesn’t hurt!

  5. We discuss this often at my Care Giver Support Group. Many of the members are happily married/partnered and caring for the beloved. But that does not mean any of us has a phalanx of care givers lined up for when we need it! We all need to work out our aging and dieing scenarios with the assumption that we will be on our own, if not exactly “orphaned”.

  6. I think it is a problem and it is so unfair to land yourself on relatives when you don’t have children. My aim is to put my affairs (that means paperwork, by the way!) in order and to leave a solicitor in charge of all the post-death admin work. This may sound dire and expensive but that is my plan A.

  7. Oh, boy! I’m the oldest of seven children, with no children of my own. I cared for my own mother for the last 12 years of her life (she suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease). One of the many things I realized during those years was that “The Last Resort” concept that so many of us talked about in our 40s and 50s and thought we might create for ourselves when we became senior citizens has some real problems as a concept. I’ve come to appreciate that the last thing I want to be responsible for when I’m 85 or 89 or 94 years old is four or five other elder orphans whose mental and physical and financial health may (or may not be) worse than my own.

    I predict that living in close community (in the same house, for instance) with similarly aged elders, which we’d be managing ourselves, would not be quite the cool scene I once imagined. Yes, it would benefit those who were least able to manage the complexities of such a household. But I can imagine the burden on the person or persons who was “the last person standing,” so to speak.

    I’m 72 years old and have half a dozen good women friends (all widows) who are 10-20 years older than me. They each live independently and are now seeing members in their group being challenged by various forms of dementia, physical disease, immobility, and financial challenges. Not a single person among them has ever wanted to or considered “moving in together” and/or “taking care of each other.” They simply don’t have the skills or energy to take care of each other. Nor do they want to.

    My current plan is to hire a local non-relative to oversee the details of my own elder-orphan years. That person would be supervised by a niece of mine who lives in another state who has offered (insisted, actually) to provide oversight and control my finances. I’m fortunate that my niece is an RN with a Master’s Degree in Geriatric Care. I think she could make a great business of performing such services for elders, and she may well go that route. If I weren’t lucky enough to have this lovely niece, I’d select a non-RN relative, an eldercare lawyer, or a financial advisor to play this oversight role.

    That’s my plan for now. Who knows what Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D will look like. 😉

    1. I agree with you. There is a big difference between the healthy elderly and the elderly frail (mentally and physically), and the former can turn into the latter quickly and mercilessly. Moreover as we age, being responsible for others, much less ourselves, can be increasingly fraught and stressful. I would love to live in an elder “community” as opposed to the dreaded retirement home, some do exist, but is this realistic for more than the very few?

  8. I don’t have children, but luckily my siblings and families mostly live in my area. But I ask myself how comfortable I would be asking them for assistance? My mother often tried to prevent us from helping her because she didn’t want to be a bother. And, we were her children. There are some nieces and nephews that I only see maybe once a year. How do I ask them for help?

  9. I take care of both my eledery parents who have some limitations but are independent “together” along with my only sibling (57) who is menatally disabled. They are a three legged stool that function well together. They also have some help , 2 hours an evening from a care attendant. I handle all finances, medical issues, medicines, the care attendant and other aspects of their lives. My mom recently had a stroke and the legged stool is now wobbly. I have to do a bit more. I have two children. One has Asperger syndrome. I’m tired. And I don’t want this for my heathy child. I think she sees what I do and must be anxious of her responsibilities in the future. My husband and I will gladly go to assisted living later on. We have been planning for this for decades. Or we will get a bigger home, have some of my single no children friends move in and hire an attendant to live with us. Almost like a group home. We also have plans for our son. My daughter or a close friends’ child will manage or co manage if we become unable too. Here in the US , we have geriatric case managers. So that is also an option. Good luck to all !

  10. It’s a huge worry. Two and a half years ago my mother, a widow after my stepfather died three years earlier, was diagnosed with vascular dementia. She lived an hour and a half from me and it was basically two years of intense stress as I struggled to keep up with her changing needs. It wasn’t feasible for her to move in with us – there were four of us plus a lodger at the time, and we have steep stairs and steps at the front of the house. Until she really couldn’t look after herself there was very little help and I found myself going over there constantly, plus fielding endless calls from my mum, neighbours, local carers, doctor etc etc etc. She moved into a residential home last September, and it’s been a huge relief that she’s now looked after properly. However, my father, 92, has now been diagnosed with the early stages of dementia. He is at least 5 hours away and lives with my partially disabled stepmother. I have one step-sibling and one sibling living aborad, and one step-sibling living two hours away from them. It’s really made me think about the future – I don’t know what the answer is, the declining state of social care is a huge worry. The thought of living somewhere like my mum’s home, pleasant and caring as it is, is horrendous, but I certainly don’t want my two daughter’s to be responsible. It’s something I find myself thinking about in the early hours – the idea of living with like minded elderly chums is nice, but I suspect, as Kathryn has pointed out, not very realistic.

  11. Very interesting conversation and a huge challenge for all of us. Like many of the respondents here, I’ve often discussed the “elderly commune” idea with a group of close friends but it’s difficult to recognise when and if to trigger shared living when ages (and incomes) vary significantly. I came across this group of enterprising women via a newspaper article a year or so ago and they stuck in my mind as a sound model for any kind of shared living:

  12. I’m 61 so I’m hoping that I have 20 years or so before this is a real concern for me…obviously that can change in a heartbeat. I took care of my mom for a few years before she died, as she took care of her mom. It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I was able to do it. I am married and we have two daughters. I plan to do all I can to avoid burdening them, but at the end of the day, I guess I expect them to step up and deal with old mom & dad as best they can. I have a close friend with no husband or children, but two nieces she’s pretty close to. She has her retirement plan all set up; when she retires from her job (about four more years) she is moving back to New Mexico where she has a small house. She will live there until she’s about 80, then will move into a retirement community where she’s already put down a deposit. She’s persuaded several friends to move to the same community. That place has different levels of care, so when she loses her marbles, they’ll put her into “memory care”. It sounds like a good plan, plus her casita she’s reserving has two bedrooms so I can come & visit. I do hope her nieces will step up & make sure she’s taken care of (considering all she’s done for them!). Elder care is a tough job; I know from experience, plus I have a couple of friends dealing with their elderly parents right now. But again, what wouldn’t you do for your mom?

  13. I read this and wondered how I could help you. Any chance you’re in B.C.? We live in Seattle and maybe we could help support your efforts…how, I don’t know, but I’m willing to explore. You’re in a challenging situation and one of the primary things is that you get the requisite rest and nurturing YOU need. You are a lovely woman, and you’re doing a wonderful thing.

    1. Hello Sheila, that is so very kind of you. Unfortunately, Alexia is not in B.C but on the other side of the country. I’m going to message her today and will pass on your kind words. Very best wishes, Alyson

  14. Thank you all for your encouraging messages and great suggestions – with a special thank you to Sheila Gustafson – I am very moved by the offer. Just hearing from such a lovely community of people has already helped much more than you will know. I’m taking everyone’s good advice (thanks Lilah for the New Yorker piece link). Also cheering to see some of you planning a Golden-Girls-style room-mate arrangement 😉 Best wishes to everyone.

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