‘Elder or­phans’ need fall­back plan for care

Many older adults lack sup­port and safety net of fam­ily

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Smarter Living - By Ju­dith Gra­ham

It was a mem­o­rable place to have an “aha” mo­ment about ag­ing.

Peter Sperry had taken his 82-year-old father, who’d had a stroke and used a wheel­chair, to Dis­ney World. Just af­ter they’d made their way through the Pi­rates of the Caribbean ride, na­ture called. Sperry took his father to the re­stroom where, with dif­fi­culty, he changed the older man’s di­a­per.

“It came to me then: There isn’t go­ing to be any­one to do this for me when I’m his age, and I needed to plan ahead,” said Sperry, now 61, re­call­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence sev­eral years ago.

Sperry never mar­ried, has no chil­dren and lives alone.

Like other “elder or­phans” (older peo­ple with­out a spouse or chil­dren on whom they can de­pend) and “solo agers” (older adults with­out chil­dren, liv­ing alone), he’s ex­pect­ing to move through later life with­out the safety net of a spouse, a son or a daugh­ter who will step up to pro­vide prac­ti­cal, phys­i­cal and emo­tional sup­port over time.

About 22 per­cent of older adults in the U.S. fall into this cat­e­gory or are at risk of do­ing so in the fu­ture, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 study.

“This is an of­ten over­looked, poorly un­der­stood group that needs more at­ten­tion from the med­i­cal com­mu­nity,” said Dr. Maria Car­ney, the study’s lead au­thor and chief of the di­vi­sion of ge­ri­atrics and pal­lia­tive medicine at North­well Health in N.Y. It’s also an es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble group, ac­cord­ing to a re­cently re­leased sur­vey of 500 peo­ple who be­long to the Elder Or­phan Face­book Group, with 8,500 mem­bers.

No­tably, 70 per­cent of sur­vey re­spon­dents said they hadn’t iden­ti­fied a care­giver who would help if they be­came ill or dis­abled, while 35 per­cent said they didn’t have “friends or fam­ily to help them cope with life’s chal­lenges.”

“What strikes me is how many of these elder or­phans are woe­fully un­pre­pared for ag­ing,” said Car­ney, who re­viewed the sur­vey at my re­quest.

Fi­nan­cial in­se­cu­rity and health con­cerns are com­mon among the sur­vey re­spon­dents: a non-ran­dom sam­ple con­sist­ing mostly of women in their 60s and 70s, most of them di­vorced or wid­owed and col­lege-ed­u­cated.

One-quar­ter of the group said they feared los­ing their hous­ing; 23 per­cent re­ported not hav­ing enough money to meet ba­sic needs at least once over the past year; 31 per­cent said they weren’t se­cure about their fi­nan­cial fu­ture.

In the sur­vey, 40 per­cent of peo­ple ad­mit­ted to de­pres­sion; 37 per­cent, to anx­i­ety. More than half (52 per­cent) con­fessed to be­ing lonely.

Carol Marak, 67, who runs the Face­book group, un­der­stands mem­bers’ in­se­cu­ri­ties bet­ter than ever since suf­fer­ing an ac­ci­dent sev­eral weeks ago. She cut her fin­ger badly on a meat grinder while mak­ing chicken salad for din­ner guests. Di­vorced and child­less, Marak lives alone in an apart­ment tower in Dal­las. She walked down the hall and asked neigh­bors — a mar­ried cou­ple — to take her to the emer­gency room.

“I freaked out — and this wasn’t even that big of a deal,” Marak said. “Imag­ine peo­ple like me who break a hip and have a long pe­riod of dis­abil­ity and re­cov­ery,” she said. “What are they sup­posed to do?”

Sperry has thought a lot about who could be his care­giver down that road in a cir­cum­stance like that. No one fits the bill.

“It’s not like I don’t have fam­ily or friends: It’s just that the peo­ple who you can count on have to be spe­cific types of fam­ily and friends,” he said. “Your sis­ter or brother, they may be will­ing to help but not able to if they’re old them­selves. Your nieces and neph­ews, they may be able, but they prob­a­bly are not go­ing to be will­ing.”

The so­lu­tion Sperry thinks might work: mov­ing to a con­tin­u­ing care re­tire­ment com­mu­nity with dif­fer­ent lev­els of care when he be­gins to be­come less in­de­pen­dent. That’s an ex­pen­sive propo­si­tion — en­try fees range from about $100,000 to $400,000 and monthly fees from about $2,000 to $4,000.

Sperry, a long­time govern­ment em­ployee, can af­ford it, but many peo­ple ag­ing alone can’t.

Sperry also has a short­term plan: He wants to re­tire next year and re­lo­cate from Wood­bridge, Va., to Greenville, S.C. — a pop­u­lar re­tire­ment haven — in a home with de­sign fea­tures to help him age in place. Those plans could be up­ended, how­ever, if his wid­owed mother in Penn­syl­va­nia re­quires ex­tra care.

In the mean­time, Sperry is re­solved to be prag­matic. “Do I look at my sit­u­a­tion and say ‘Gee, there’s not go­ing to be any­one there for

— Peter Sperry

me’ and start feel­ing sorry for my­self? Or do I say ‘Gee, I’d bet­ter fig­ure out how I’m go­ing to take care of my­self?’ I’m not go­ing with pity — I don’t think that would be very pleas­ant,” he said.

Plan­ning for chal­lenges that can arise with ad­vanc­ing age is es­sen­tial for peo­ple who go it alone, ad­vised Sara Zeff Ge­ber, a re­tire­ment coach and au­thor of “Es­sen­tial Re­tire­ment Plan­ning for Solo Agers: A Re­tire­ment and Ag­ing Roadmap for Sin­gle and Child­less Adults.” A good way to start is to think about things that adult chil­dren do for older par­ents and con­sider how you’re go­ing to do all of that your­self or with out­side as­sis­tance, she said. In her book, Ge­ber lists the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that adult chil­dren fre­quently take on: They serve as care­givers, help older par­ents fig­ure out where to live, pro­vide emo­tional and prac­ti­cal sup­port, as­sist with fi­nan- cial is­sues and agree to serve as health care or le­gal de­ci­sion-mak­ers when a par­ent be­comes in­ca­pac­i­tated.

Also, older par­ents of­ten rely on adult chil­dren for reg­u­lar so­cial con­tact and a sense of con­nect­ed­ness.

In New York, Wendl Korn­feld, 69, be­gan run­ning year­long work­shops for small groups of solo agers four years ago. Though mar­ried, she and her 80year-old hus­band con­sider them­selves fu­ture solo agers liv­ing to­gether.

At those gath­er­ings, Korn­feld asked peo­ple to imag­ine the ab­so­lute worst things that might hap­pen to them, phys­i­cally and so­cially. Then, peo­ple talked about how they might pre­pare for those even­tu­al­i­ties.

“The whole pur­pose of these get-to­geth­ers was to be fear­less, face is­sues head- on and not keep our heads in the sand,” Korn­feld said.

Korn­feld took her pro­gram to New York City’s Temple Emanu-El three years ago and is work­ing with sev­eral syn­a­gogues and churches in­ter­ested in launch­ing sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives. Mean­while, elder or­phans have be­gun meet­ing in-per­son in other cities af­ter get­ting to know each other vir­tu­ally on the Elder Or­phan Face­book Group.

Korn­feld ap­plauds that de­vel­op­ment. “So many solo agers iden­tify as be­ing in­tro­verted or shy or im­pa­tient with other peo­ple. They have a mil­lion rea­sons why they don’t go out,” she said. “I tell peo­ple, this may be hard for you, but you’ve got to leave the house be­cause that’s where the world is.”

“It’s not like I don’t have fam­ily or friends: It’s just that the peo­ple who you can count on have to be spe­cific types of fam­ily and friends.”


Peter Sperry, shown on a trip to Barcelona, is pre­par­ing to move through later life with­out the safety net of a spouse or child to care for him.

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