When my mother was in the final years of her life and suffering from dementia, she forgot the names of food and couldn’t tell us what she wanted to eat. But I remembered the meals she served us when I was growing up, so I prepared grilled cheese sandwiches, tuna salad, and sliced and salted avocado for her. But for those who don’t have children, who will remember their favorite foods when they’ve lost their memories?
After my father had a stroke and couldn’t read, talk coherently or play any of the three musical instruments he excelled at (harmonica, accordion, piano), I played for him, via Spotify, all the old familiar songs he and my mother sang when we were young, like “You Are My Sunshine” or “Red River Valley,” plus German polka music, his favorite. The music pierced through the foggy layers of his brain and got him to sing and tap his feet. Without children, who would remember the music that made him happiest?
Twelve million people over 65 in this country live alone (according to the Pew Research Center), and many in that group also are childless. Unlike previous generations, many baby boomers did not have children, for various reasons, or are estranged from their children. My generation also had higher divorce rates than previous generations. All of this means a lot of seniors will have to navigate the hazards of getting older by themselves.
Because so many fall into this category, there’s an official name for older people who live alone and have no children: solo aging or elder orphans. In the county where I live, the government regularly offers workshops on this issue, which are well attended. Local experts advise which legal documents you need to ensure your wishes are met after you die: how your money is distributed, whether you want to be buried or cremated, and if you want CPR on your deathbed.
One big issue is finding a person who can handle your financial affairs when you become unable to—whether because of dementia or physical disabilities. How do you find someone who is trustworthy? How do you know if the legal or financial firm you hire will still be in business in 10 or even 20 years when you’ll need help?
And who will fight for solo agers when they need an advocate in the world—with medical offices or senior facilities, for example? After my father’s stroke left him in the nursing care unit, the director of the senior facility refused to let him move back into the assisted living apartment with my mom (liability issues, she said). To keep them together, I had to move them both to a different apartment and hire a full-time caregiver. Without children to fight for us, who will be our allies? Friends, yes, but most of our friends are the same age and will be fighting their own battles.
Right now, I see no easy answers or solutions. It’s a brave new world.