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Elder Orphans03/07/2017

Though the golden years are full of travel, philanthropy and fun for many older adults, this era of life can present a challenge for those who either did not plan appropriately for their retirement or find themselves beset with physical and mental obstacles while having no one to assist them. A growing subset of the senior population - as much as 22 percent of those 65 and older - is increasingly vulnerable to the otherwise routine aspects of aging because, simply put, there is no one in their life to help them. Their parents and siblings have passed, they never married and therefore have no children, and many of their friends are too far removed or unreachable. This population, known as elder orphans, is a silent, growing problem afflicting many of our nation's elderly.

Elder orphans find themselves in this predicament due largely to circumstance rather than choice, according to the 2016 report "Elderly Orphans Hiding in Plain Sight." Many of these individuals have been perfectly independent throughout their lives and have not needed outside assistance. "As they age and decline, however," the report states, "they realize, often too late, that they can no longer complete many of the tasks they were previously able to do."

Suddenly, and frequently without much warning, elder orphans find themselves stranded - socially, physically, mentally - and unable to access the preventative care they once took for granted. This leads to serious health problems and concerns, which often burdens the individual with unexpected healthcare costs, leading to a downward cycle from which there may realistically be no escape.

Being an elder orphan can have dire social and mental consequences, as well. With decreased social interaction due to the inability to access transportation, seniors can suffer loneliness and isolation, crucial risk factors for medical complications and mortality. The safety and livelihood of these people are threatened, and without mitigating efforts, could become worse if population trends continue. Seniors without a care network also face legal and estate challenges, since many adults depend on their children to help tend to financial affairs and navigate legal questions. Affordable housing is also hard to come by. Even mobile homes may become unaffordable as their money is tied up with other more pressing expenses, such as food and medicine. Foreclosure and homelessness is a rare but real problem.

Finally, transportation is a necessity of both city and country life, one that many of us take for granted but one that can be prohibitively expensive or turn a simple doctor's visit into a full-day affair.

With no family and few friends, it is incumbent upon us, the community, to rescue these elder orphans from an unfortunate experience during what should be the best years of one's life. Experts recommend reaching out to those who we feel may be isolated and vulnerable and attempting to interact with them. Asking simple questions like, "Have you fallen in the last six months?" or "How much medicine do you take?" can be helpful when contacting a social services agency, such as Council on Aging, on their behalf. Offering to take them to church, doctor's appointments and community events can also go a long way toward helping them. Researchers say that developing a rotation schedule with neighbors can lighten the load on individuals in the community.

It is crucial, according to the literature, to reach elder orphans before complete loss of cognitive and physical functions or admission into acute care facilities. "Early identification of these at-risk individuals allows for care plans that can better meet the needs of the elder orphan," the report states.

For those who are truly concerned about a neighbor or acquaintance, consider becoming their health care advocate. Prepare a medical summary of their conditions, allergies, a list of medications and dosages, etc.; offer to accompany them to the doctor and ensure they fully understand diagnoses and treatment options; take notes of any concerning behavior and tell their primary care provider about it; offer to make meals or clean their home in exchange for a small fee, or if you prefer, reach out to service providers who may be able to offer a meal delivery services and transportation from public funds.

Obviously, not everyone can commit to several hours a week of free or even paid work or vigilance. That is why it is so imperative to identify these individuals before their condition deteriorates. If you know someone, or know someone who knows someone who is without parents, a spouse or children, make them aware of the many services available to them should they ever become unable to care for themselves. Encourage them to make an emergency contact sheet with people who are willing to do small tasks for them. By working together, we can alleviate the coming concerns associated with elder orphans and help ensure that their golden years are just that.


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