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Elder Orphans: Ending the Isolation


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We call children “orphans” if they lose their parents, but don’t tend to associate this description with people at the other end of the life spectrum. And while foster care exists to help the young, seniors are on their own as “elder orphans.”

lonely-seniorAn elder orphan is someone with no spouse/companion, children, or other close relatives to rely on for friendship and support. Of course, having family members is no guarantee of assistance in one’s later years. But starting from solo can makes it that much more challenging to age in place.

One woman wrote, “I truly experienced the ‘elder orphan’ dilemma during my recent surgery. I had to use a voluntary car service to get to the hospital only to find out the ride was not able to bring me home. I didn’t tolerate the surgery as well as had been anticipated, so I ended up being admitted because there wasn’t anyone to care for me overnight.”

Beyond our physical needs, social isolation and loneliness are detrimental to our health. Isolation is as bad as smoking, and in many ways worse.

Remote Rescue

To address the needs of the growing ranks of elder orphans, SeniorCare.com editor Carol Marak started an Elder Orphans Facebook group in 2016 that rapidly swelled to over 5000 members in just one year. The community, connection and support are proving invaluable to seniors in myriad situations. The group addresses such topics as:

  • How to select a health care proxy
  • How to prepare for surgery
  • How to prepare your home for a speedy recovery when family’s not around
  • How to celebrate special occasions alone
  • How to ask for support
  • Learning to deal with stressful situations
  • Form local support groups and meeting face-to-face
  • Helping one another find local services, transportation, and affordable housing.

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One of the most critical areas, of course, is how seniors without a support system will handle the day-to-day aspects of aging alone. For those aging in place, the Facebook group suggests:

  • House sharing, e.g., exchanging a room in your home with a student or other able-bodied person for an agreed-upon number of hours of assistance, whether that’s running errands, preparing and sharing meals, accompanying the senior to appointments, etc. This can work well with a college student or other person, young or retired, who may have more time than money. It’s a precursor of sorts to caregiving, for someone who is still independent yet could use a little help as well as companionship. In the Netherlands, students live free in nursing homes in exchange for thirty hours a month of senior service — not as caregivers, but as friends. It’s a mutually rewarding model.
  • Aging in community. A step beyond home sharing, co-housing and cooperatives are alternative ways for elder orphans to live surrounded by others. An elder orphan might also consider moving to an inter-generational community where elders are cared for as part of the community mission.

Seeing AI to Eye

While digital assistance is no substitute for human contact, of course, services in the cyber age can go a long way towards alleviating loneliness and isolation. One resource is Uniper Care Technologies‘ mobile app that turns an older adult’s TV into a connected solution for social engagement, medical monitoring, home maintenance and entertainment. It integrates well with an aging in place model that presupposes interested others, whether relatives, friends or new digital allies, are also available to lend vital virtual support.

Japan, where more than a fourth of the population is 65+, is at the forefront of AI for seniors, with inventions such as Robear, a friendly-featured ursine pal that can literally do the heavy lifting for a solo senior, gently depositing someone from bed to chair.

Then there’s MiRo, a robotic dog that functions like a trained service animal. Described as a “biomimetic companion,” it watches for a break in routine and then, just like a real service dog, will try talking to the senior to ensure she’s OK. If there seems to be a problem, MiRo will send a signal to the home speaker, which will broadcast the inquiry again, telling the elder to slap her wrist. If the senior doesn’t respond, the signal contacts an emergency response team. And while MiRo never needs to be walked or fed, he’s a bit like a live canine: both buddy and guardian, keeping an eye out for his human friend.

Celebrating Life, Not Death

Some elder orphans worry about who will be there to handle their death and funeral arrangements. One writer, herself on the elder orphan trajectory, suggests your elder orphan HECM clients plan ahead, as we’ve covered before.

The best perspective comes from one LO’s reverse mortgage client, an elderly woman who was quite ill and not expected to live much longer. Together with her family, she helped plan her own funeral. However, once her affairs were in order, she recovered — and decided it would be much more fun to have a “Celebration of Life” instead of a funeral, so she could enjoy the festivities. While “Life Celebration” is often used as a euphemism for a memorial service, this woman turned the idea on its ear and participated in a joy-filled day that honored her long and eventful life.


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