What will we do if we become “Elder Orphans?”


An elderly cancer patient in North Carolina called 911 recently to ask someone to buy him some food. He’s what a new study is calling an “elder orphan,” one of more and more older people who have no kids, no spouse, and no one to take care of them.
The study by Maria Torroella Carney, MD, shows that nearly one-quarter of Americans over age 65 are currently or at risk to become “Elder orphans.” It’s a growing population that is often invisible to the people around them, alone in their houses struggling to survive. One-third of older Americans are single, a 50 percent increase since 1980. The latest census figures show 19 percent of American women are ending their childbearing years without children. Thus they wind up alone.
I’m very much in danger of being one of those people. I live alone in the woods with no husband and no kids. My family is small and far away. I do have friends and helpful neighbors, but I have a hard time calling on them for help.
Just like my dad. My father is 93 years old and has lived alone in the house in San Jose where I grew up since my mom died in 2002. My brother and I do our best to help, but neither one of us lives nearby. Dad has heart problems, struggles to walk since he broke his hip last year, and falls way too often. He puts off going to the doctor or renewing his many medications because, although he can still drive, he doesn’t understand the medical system very well and the Kaiser Hospital where he goes is so crowded there’s no nearby parking. His house is falling apart around him because he can’t do the maintenance anymore, and his cooking is . . . interesting.
I just returned from San Jose (Did you miss me?). I had planned for a vacation-type visit, but the day before I left, Dad’s doctor decided he needed to have his pacemaker replaced immediately. So I took him to the hospital, interacted with doctors and nurses, picked up his prescriptions, and played caregiver again. He’s fine. But what if I wasn’t there?
Have I told you about Dad’s fall last August? He went down in the backyard. Broke his hip. Crawled all the way across the yard, through the garage and out to the driveway, where he lay waving his hat until a neighbor saw him. This took hours. Thank God the garage door was open. I could not have stopped him from falling, but I could have prevented the torture that followed. I spent a month taking care of him, but then I had to come home. feel so guilty, but he wants me to live my life, and he wants to live his. He’s proud of being independent. He’d rather die alone in his backyard than in some senior facility.
Let me tell you about Dick and Ann. They’re in their late 80s. Ann is nearly blind. Dick, a burly guy with a strong Massachusetts accent, has been suffering from all kinds of health problems, including pneumonia, heart disease, and legs that just don’t want to work. Ann has a son somewhere, but he’s not around. Their neighbors, friends from our church, take care of them. They drive them around, make sure they have food, and take them to their doctors’ appointments. They do the same for an old woman on their block who lives alone. My friend Cathy even manages her finances because she can’t do them anymore, and the one time her son took over the checkbook, she wound up missing $5,000.
What I’m saying is having kids does not guarantee you won’t become an elder orphan. My brother and I call Dad every week. When something happens with him, we both get there as quickly as we can, but that may not be quickly enough. And we’re not there for the day-to-day needs, the cooking, cleaning, shopping, and just keeping him company. When I visit Dad, he talks and talks, like he’s been saving it up for years. When I leave, I feel incredibly guilty.
My friend Terry, who is about 60, has a plan. She has three grown children and a husband with some serious health issues, but she expects to be alone eventually. Her plan is to rent out her extra bedrooms to other women and create a “Golden Girls” household where they share the house and watch over each other. It sounds good to me. I think I’ll be “Dorothy,” the sensible one.
What I’m saying is that kids or no kids, we’re in danger of ending up alone in our elder years. But if we don’t have children, it’s more likely to happen. We need to make plans. Set up an advance directive and power of attorney. Choose someone who will manage things for us if we can’t. Reach out to other people who can help. It’s hard. I’m not good at asking for help, and I want to control everything. But I know who to call, and I’ve got in writing. You should do the same. Someday I’m hoping to move someplace less isolated, but meanwhile, since I don’t think my dog can dial 911, I have to take care of myself. So should you.
I’d love to hear your comments on this.
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14 thoughts on “What will we do if we become “Elder Orphans?”

  1. Glad you are back! I have been eagerly waiting for your next post, so in the meantime, I've been reading your book. 😊. And enjoying it quite a bit I might add. Working in the Nursing Home industry, for years I sat at the morning meeting hearing the clinical team talk about the residents. Every once in a while we would admit a patient that didn't have children and the conversation was always the same. “Mrs Smith has no children to help her….”, then came the….”Really? Wow, that's sad…” I would always sit there and think about the day when they are having that conversation about me. I do worry about that, my husband is 8 years older and was recently diagnosed with seizures. I live 3,000 miles from any family, so it's just him and I. Scary thought some times.

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  2. Thanks, Anonymous. I'm glad you're enjoying the book. Yes, it is very scary. Although I'm sure you have noticed that even nursing home residents with children may never hear from them. All we can do is set things up the best we can and let go, I guess.

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  3. Oh yes!! I could share some horrible stories about the children of some of our residents. So sad. 😞. I think I need to start making younger friends. Had brunch this past weekend with four of my close bible study ladies and realized they are all in their mid 60s and I'm only 50. Hahaha!!!! Yes, I'm truly enjoying your book!!! Like I had mentioned earlier in an other post, I honestly thought I was the only one on the planet in my situation. I will have to say how much I admire you for putting all your thoughts and emotions into a book for the world to read. None of my friends know my story and no one ever will. Too personal to share. In the one time I shared with someone why I really don't have children, I was met with the response of “I would have never married my husband if he didn't want children”. Oh well, what can happen say?? Anyways… Desperately looking for a friend without children where I live. Glad you are back!! And am looking forward to more of your blog.

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  4. Sue, thank you for sharing the story of your Dad and reminding us to think about our future plans. Your father is blessed to have such a devoted daughter.

    My grandmother became an elder orphan for a time when my mother died and there were no relatives living close by to act as caregivers. Her son lived several hours away and called each day, but could not give her rides to the doctor. She began to depend on the guy who cut her grass for assistance and he eventually acquired power of attorney over her estate as well as guardianship of her person! Since my uncle (her son) did not object, there was nothing the family could do. When he died, the grandchildren stepped in and legally took all control away from the handyman. This just recently happened, so we are now in the process of moving my grandmother to another state, to be closer to her grandchildren.

    I was again reminded that children are not insurance against living alone. I also appreciate how the Lord provided for my grandmother until a more permanent solution could be found. I am really bothered by the fact that my grandmother never called on the family for help. Perhaps my uncle discouraged it or there was some other reason, like maybe Granny was perfectly happy with her living arrangement!

    Sue, I love the idea of the Golden Girls arrangement! I hope one day to find a situation like that.

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  5. Welcome back Sue! I've been checking too – waiting for your return.

    It's so strange that you are highlighting this issue as it's been on my mind too. At 40 (and a young feeling one at that) I don't concern myself too much (yet) with how my “golden years” will unfold. I'm blessed to be married into a huge family and have a ton of nieces and nephews. I'm guessing I can count on a few to run a few errands for me.

    The reason I'm thinking about this lately is due to a family drama. One of my close sisters-in-law has reached another level of her religious “whatever”. She has suddenly decided that many of the adults in this large family are not suitable to be around her children.

    Unfortunately her children were the ones we felt the most connection with.

    Even more unfortunately, my sister-in-law has pegged my husband to be the most unsuitable one, due to his sketchy history. It's no secret to her that we don't have children because of our troubled marriage. Still, even with his troubles she let us spend all kinds of time with the kids. It seemed she reached out to us especially to include us in her children lives – to sort of “make up” for what we were missing.

    And now that he's consistently been a wonderful person for over 4 years – she's changed her tune. Out of the blue she called us up. Said some terrible things, insulted us even though we've spent the last 12 years celebrating her wonderful children. Now there are rules how how we spend time with these innocent kids. Now she finds it “strange” that we want to be close to her children. Like childless by choice adults are all part of a secret pediphille club or something. I guess we're disgusting to her.

    We're so sad. We feel like a huge part of our life – a part that really sustained us – is gone. The last thing she yelled in exasperation before ending the call was “go have kids of your own!”

    Ouch. And wow.

    I guess I expected that the future with these kids would draw us even closer. I love all my nieces and nephews the same but we were invited into these kids life in a special way. And they seemed to love us extra much. Now I find myself rethinking the near future and in turn the distant future. My point is the same as yours. Never think that because you have something – that you will always have what you think is yours. Life unfolds beautifully. But sometimes when you fold it back up into a neat little box it doesn't always fit the way you want.

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  6. Yikes, Anonymous. Toxic relatives are fun, aren't they? Well, you know and the kids know, how you feel about each other. I'll bet they come back to you later. Meanwhile, stay away from this sister who has decided you don't measure up.

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  7. Hi Sue, another subject close to my heart. My plan was to pay for long term care insurance and pray for nice health service workers who don't take advantage of me. Pretty deep huh?

    You've offered sound advice here, and I am taking it to heart. Thank you for another powerful post.

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  8. I have recently been thinking a lot about this issue as I have no and will have no children. 😦

    Thank you for writing about it. I've decided that I need a will (every one should have one I know, but I never had one made up because…there's no kids to look after if I die) and I need a plan laid out now for what will become of me in the far future if (or when) I'm unable to care for myself.

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  9. I'll be on my own.

    I've been working full time plus caring for both my mother and my husband. Mum has just passed away at the age of 90. Husband had a stroke two years ago. His grown-up kids are 'so glad' their dad has me. I'll bet – if he hadn't married me, he'd be in a care home.

    Guess how many visits he got from them when he was in hospital from his stroke? One.

    How many did he get when he had a triple bypass five years previously? Zero.

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  10. Sounds like my husband's kids. When he was in the nursing homes, there were about four visits from the three kids. But when he died, who did they call first? His son. I'm still angry about that.

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  11. This post was very timely for me. My father in law is currently in hospice with the end stages of pancreatic cancer. Though we live a distance, we live close enough to spend a great deal of time with him and my husbands siblings both live close by. My mother-in-law keeps saying how grateful she is to have so much support during this difficult time. She goes on and on about how some people don't have anyone, etc. etc. What she doesn't realize is that this absolutely freaks me out. My husband and I do not have any children and we also do not live by family. He is also significantly younger than his siblings and his nieces and nephews do not live close by. Its scary to think that we will potentially be utterly alone as we age. I wish we could prepare better for this time but I'm not really sure how.

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  12. Anon July 3, I'm sorry about your father-in-law. Pancreatic cancer is rough. Your mother-in-law is lucky to have your guys. When my husband was sick, we were on our own, and yes, I'm pretty much out here in the woods by myself. But I do have friends, and I'll bet you do, too. My family lives far away, but they would come if I really needed them. It's hard to ask sometimes, but we're not as alone as we think. Maybe you can talk about this with friends and family and ask them to come when you need them. I'll bet they would.

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  13. I’m an RN and feel its necessary to share what I have observed many times over three decades in practice: the older adults that are “orphaned” (even if there is family) know exactly why/how that had happened. These were parents who were abusive in some form, neglectful, etc. Their adult children are not “getting back at them”, rather they are demonstrating their coping of long standing issues. For these adult children non-confrontation/non-contact is best for their mental health. On the other hand there are older adults that have always been independent and have had loving positive relationships with their children but do not want to “burden” them – because they understand it can be a financial rabbit hole taking over the day to day care of a parent with health issues, straining whatever relationship there is by draining limited financial resources. Having children is no guarantee you’ll be taken care of at life’s end, and that is a poor reason to have them in the first place.

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    • Deborah, Thank you for sharing this. It definitely gives us something to think about. And yes, it’s not a good idea to have children so they can be your caregivers later in life. Save your money and hire someone.

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