Be­ing with­out A care­giver is A worry for sin­gle se­niors

As many sin­gles grow older, the prospect of de­clin­ing health can pro­voke un­wanted fears

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - STEVEN PETROW

Not long be­fore I turned 60, my hus­band and I split up, and a health con­cern that I’d never re­ally wor­ried about jumped out at me: What would I do, now alone, if I be­came se­ri­ously ill?

I’ve had health is­sues in the past, so I know the im­por­tance of hav­ing some­one there to sup­port you — through doc­tor’s ap­point­ments, out­pa­tient treat­ments, even drug­store vis­its.

Grow­ing old on my own didn’t sound great for a num­ber of rea­sons, but who would take care of me if I be­came sick, in­jured or just too frail to take care of my­self ?

More and more of us are con­fronting this prob­lem, es­pe­cially as we slide — or stum­ble — from mid-life to old age. Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bu­reau, the ag­ing co­hort (those older than 65) is ex­pected to reach 78 mil­lion by 2035, or more than 20 per cent of the en­tire pop­u­la­tion.

Sheila Warnock, co-author of Share the Care: How to Or­ga­nize a Group to Care for Some­one Who Is Se­ri­ously Ill, added: “A lot of older peo­ple are liv­ing alone, and that’s a big is­sue ... in par­tic­u­lar for women who are more likely to be wid­owed, di­vorced or sin­gle.”

Shortly af­ter my sep­a­ra­tion came my trial run: A thy­roid ul­tra­sound ini­tially ap­peared to show a ma­lig­nancy that was soon de­clared nor­mal.

In the two dark days of wait­ing, I won­dered: Who will take care of me? Whose shoul­der will I cry on? Who will drive me to the doc­tor? Who? Who? Who?

A few months af­ter my sep­a­ra­tion, some friends or­ga­nized a birth­day party to show me that I wasn’t re­ally alone, that I had a friend­ship cir­cle to rely on.

I had joked about my anx­i­eties about be­ing sin­gle at 60 and noted that I was look­ing for vol­un­teers to drive me to med­i­cal treat­ments, start­ing with an up­com­ing colonoscopy.

The pro­ce­dure re­quires mild se­da­tion, and pa­tients are not al­lowed to walk out on their own, even just to get in a taxi.

My friend Daniel vol­un­teered, but I hes­i­tated be­cause I didn’t think we were close enough for this par­tic­u­lar as­sign­ment.

Lynn Fein­berg, a pol­icy ad­viser at AARP’s Pub­lic Pol­icy In­sti­tute, said the per­son usu­ally re­lied on in this type of sit­u­a­tion “would typ­i­cally be a spouse or part­ner.” Scratch that. Fein­berg, 67, a widow of 10 years, gave a sober­ing take on the ques­tion, “Who will be tak­ing care of our gen­er­a­tion of older peo­ple?”

She points out that 25 per cent of adults 25 and older have never mar­ried. There’s greater child­less­ness than ever. We’re liv­ing longer than ever — hur­rah! — but she’s aware that the di­a­betes epi­demic and heart dis­ease may mean that our chil­dren have shorter life spans than we do.

“There’s also more di­vorce among peo­ple age 50 and over, dou­bling since the 1990s,” Fein­berg noted.

For those who do have kids, she says, the younger gen­er­a­tion is more likely than not to live in an­other time zone.

So who would be my des­ig­nated driver and com­pan­ion? I re­called the hu­mil­i­a­tion of com­ing out of se­da­tion af­ter my first colonoscopy, a decade ear­lier, ask­ing my then hus­band 100 times in 10 min­utes: “What time is it?” (Anes­the­sia im­pairs mem­ory, and my mind was a sieve for sev­eral hours.) Oh, and you have to “pass wind” be­fore they will let you leave. Of course, that’s what a spouse or part­ner is for.

I sched­uled, can­celled and resched­uled the pro­ce­dure three times, partly be­cause I didn’t know who I could ask. By that last time I re­al­ized a colonoscopy wasn’t just a colonoscopy, it was a big bad metaphor. What if I get sick?

I de­cided to ask my un­cou­pled Face­book friends what scared them about be­com­ing ill. I was over­whelmed by the num­ber of re­sponses and by the uni­ver­sal­ity of our fears. “Ques­tions about shop­ping, cooking, house­keep­ing, trans­porta­tion to med­i­cal ap­point­ments, han­dling fi­nances, hav­ing suf­fi­cient funds, all arise,” posted one woman in her 60s. “I worry about hav­ing to leave my home,” com­mented an­other. Many oth­ers said they were ter­ri­fied of hav­ing to de­pend on oth­ers.

And the mother of all fears: “Be­ing alone, then dy­ing alone.” Check that.

My Face­book friends also made some worth­while sug­ges­tions. “Sign up for Car­ing Bridge,” a free web­site that helps con­nect fam­ily and friends, Kate wrote. “Vet out your true blues among friends, com­mit to them as a true blue,” Carl posted. “Plan for who will watch over and be there for my 20-some­thing kids — both emo­tion­ally and in terms of ad­min­is­ter­ing the fi­nan­cial stuff,” Susan added to the long thread. “Re­lo­cate to where you have friends and fam­ily,” wisely noted Jeff. A sec­ond Susan: “Groups of friends are or­ga­niz­ing in Care Cir­cles to help with this.” (Th­ese are model pro­grams based on the idea that com­mu­nity is not only about ge­og­ra­phy but also about re­la­tion­ships.)

In Share the Care, Warnock has a num­ber of prac­ti­cal sug­ges­tions, in­clud­ing get­ting your le­gal and med­i­cal af­fairs in or­der (and putting im­por­tant doc­u­ments where a trusted some­one can find them). She also rec­om­mends that sin­gle peo­ple make an emer­gency con­tact list that in­cludes doc­tors and fam­ily mem­bers and then put it on the re­frig­er­a­tor. And she sug­gests start­ing a “share the care” group in your neigh­bour­hood, which is re­ally about build­ing your own sup­port net­work.

In the end, I asked my close friend Deb­bie, who knew my anx­i­eties, to be my colonoscopy com­pan­ion.

On the way home, she men­tioned that she had been in the room when the doc­tor an­nounced I couldn’t leave un­til I passed wind, an an­nounce­ment I hadn’t heard be­cause I was still out.

We both laughed.

GETTY IM­AGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Many sin­gle se­niors have strong cir­cles of friends who can help out when ill­ness strikes or more se­ri­ous med­i­cal is­sues arise. But many still ex­pe­ri­ence fear.

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