Identified over thirty years ago, these “elder orphans” are what research geriatricians call the aged, community-dwelling, socially and/or physically isolated individuals who don’t have a family member or surrogate caregiver. This term has been resurrected in recent years due to the longevity of aging boomers.
In 2017, 13.8 million older adults were living alone in the United States according to the Administration for Community Living—and 9.3 million of them are women. We can point to several trends driving those numbers.
Almost half of women over the age of 75 live alone—more than double the rates of their male counterparts. Widows outnumber widowers by more than three times. Meanwhile, the number of divorced and separated older adults in the U.S has steadily risen from 5.3% in 1980 to 15% in 2017 (US Census Bureau Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 2018.) And, people who abuse substances or who are mentally ill are more likely to live alone and be socially isolated from friends and family (Meiss, 2004).
There are vast differences between married seniors with children and those who are single, widowed or divorced.
Falls, illness or medical emergencies become pivotal moments for older people without a partner or nearby kids. In the wake of a crisis, they struggle to handle everyday activities like shopping, cooking, housekeeping and transportation, not to mention the more complex issue of patient advocacy.
Elder orphans also have a harder time meeting the growing cost of living. Older adults who live alone are more than three times more likely to live in poverty than older adults living with family, according to the US Census Bureau.
Avoiding the pitfalls of social isolation and loneliness is also a challenge for solo agers. They suffer from simply not having anyone to call for help or to discuss a health or financial problem.
In 2016, I launched the Elder Orphan Facebook group for individuals 55 and over. Here’s what we hear from some of the 8,200 members:
“I think about having no one around who is concerned if I’m not seen for days…”
“I get along well with being alone and can adapt to getting older and dealing with loneliness. But yesterday, I became very ill with vertigo and nausea. My aloneness crept up… If I needed to go to the emergency room, I was up a creek… I felt helpless and vulnerable, which is not my usual style.”
“One of the hardest parts of being an Elder Orphan is going it alone on major life expenses like car repairs and home improvements.”
“There is nothing like a medical crisis to make EOs realize how vulnerable we are. I think it is a wake-up call to do some serious planning for the future.”
“I worry about being alone and dying alone.”
Only when professionals across business, healthcare and technology acknowledge that solo agers have different and unique needs, can we implement solutions that solve their unique challenges—and make them feel visible.