Aging Alone

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.

13 thoughts on “Aging Alone

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  1. As always, a wonderful column, insightful and compelling. We need to find alternatives to the past. The pandemic has made it harder to find home health care professionals. Sending love, Niki

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  2. That resonates with me as someone without my own kids. It’s true, you need an advocate in today’s world, especially medical care. No way to know our individual fate. But it is concerning. That’s a whole lotta folks in that situation. I never would have expected the number to be so high. Very interesting piece. Thanks for writing it!

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  3. Thanks for this, Kath. It’s one of those subjects I really don’t want to think about, but the older I get, the more relevant the topic. I have kids, but they live in other states. I have been so independent over the last 40 years or so that I always just think I’ll be able to handle whatever comes up, but I also see that my brain isn’t as sharp as it once was, and the more complex a situation is, the more anxiety it produces. On this cancer journey, I’ve been impressed with the medical system. From the time of diagnosis, I was assigned a Nurse Navigator who is my go-to person for questions. She keeps track of all the doctors and tests and procedures, and checks in with me (less often as I roll toward the end date for radiation). This is a huge help for easing my anxiety because I don’t have to be afraid that anything will fall through the cracks if I’m not on top of it.

    When my father got sick, he did not have a Nurse Navigator and both his doctor and his oncologist barely spoke English, Communication was a challenge, and it seemed that each aspect of his illness was managed by a different doctor, and none of them communicated with each other, let alone with him or with me. I had spent years working in the tech world, and I thought to myself that what my dad (and others in his situation) needed was a project manager. I guess Mercy Medical here in California has the same idea, and thus the Nurse Navigator.

    Like you, I “see no easy answers or solutions.” We live in a culture that does not value elders, and so we are first dismissable and then disposable. This situation took a few hundred years to evolve and any resolution will probably take a few hundred more. So we talk to each other, learn what we can, and hope for the best.

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  4. Hello, VJWilder, I liked your comment very much. But i dare disagree in one point: it wouldn’t take a hundred years to change the attitude towards elderly people if young(ish) people learned more about what it means to be old: all the fortitude, heartbreak, courage, strength to survive and try to live fully in a society that doesn’t respect you, doesn’t listen to you, doesn’t SEE you.
    I am sure that the generation in their 40s and 50s will not like to be treated like they treat seniors at present. But either they change their ways and learn what it means to be old, or they will have to endure the same undignified treatment.
    I am 75 years old, very active and independent, with children and grandchildren, but , at the present, I know more dead people than live people!! You can laugh!!!

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    1. Your comment made me wonder how we change attitudes toward older people. When I was young, I saw “old people” as aliens, even though I was close to my grandparents. It’s only as you get older that you realize you’re the same person as when you were young, just “disguised” as someone old.

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  5. Kath, yes to what you said about changing attitudes toward older people. There is so much we can’t know about being old until we ARE old. Like you, I was close to my grandparents–but I didn’t “get” it about the “the fortitude, heartbreak, courage, strength” it took to get to that age (Conceição’s words). They were just my grandparents, loveable, sweet, but not necessarily–in my ignorant young view–wise. Ah, had I but known then what I know now . . .

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    1. But if we knew, maybe we wouldn’t want to survive into old age. And we wouldn’t have believed our elders’ depiction of aging; surely, it couldn’t be that bad.

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  6. I’m interested to learn what methods/adaptations/resources you learn/utilize to navigate the world- I believe in you! From what I know, you are capable, relatable, and resilient.

    As I don’t intend to have children, will likely outlive my fiance, and without nieces/nephews to speak of, I too wonder who will look out for me when I get older. Though I must remember that kids are no guarantee/insurance; some kids are trouble and lead their parents to an early grave instead, ha!

    Between my fiancé and I, dividing up his parents’ medical treatments is currently manageable because we all live within 10 miles. I wonder how we will manage things if my mom will need help at some point, and get upset thinking about any life obstacles or objections to me, her only child, moving home to be near her, but my mom says I’m getting ahead of myself and not to worry; she truly is in excellent health

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    1. Thanks, Alexis. I do believe that old age demands resiliency, or else many of us would have given up a long time ago. And I agree that having children is no guarantee that they will be there when you need them. I know plenty of fellow seniors who are estranged from their children. I think the main solution is to make sure, as you get older, that you spell out, in legal documents, your wishes: for the kind of care you’ll want when you can no longer take care of yourself; where you want your money to go, etc., and in as much detail as possible. There’s a document called Five Wishes, which covers most of the essential decisions but also some of the less important ones, like what kind of funeral you want and the kind of music you want played. Important, too, is naming someone who has power of attorney over your finances and health, when you reach the point you can no longer make those decisions.
      Other than that, I think it’s important to create support groups among friends. One friend and I have promised each other that when we can no longer get to the hiking trails, the other one will help. But we can’t control it all; a certain amount will be left to fate. I admire you for being concerned about your mom, but it sounds like she’s very resilient (maybe that’s where your resilience comes from). Thanks for your incisive comment.

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