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Elder Orphans: A Real Problem or a New Way to Scare Singles?

Married with children? That's no guarantee of support in later life.

If you are single and have no kids, scare stories are made for you. Some are familiar: You are going to become a bag lady. You are going to grow old alone. You are going to die alone. Now, in case we single people have become too inured to these old threats or too uppity to fret about them, a new one is making the rounds: We are going to end up as “elder orphans,” with no one to care for us as we become old and frail and vulnerable.

There are some serious issues here, so I don't want to be entirely dismissive. But I do want to put the concerns in perspective so that single people and people with no children are not needlessly put on the defensive once again, while those who are married with children feel reassured that they are just fine. And I also want to push back on those judgmental headlines, such as the one from Consumer Affairs declaring, "Free-living Baby Boomers at risk of becoming 'elderly orphans'," which came with the smug tagline, “Wild and free is great when you’re young, not so great when you’re old.”

In the next sections, I’ll discuss (1) the elder orphan demographics; (2) who is at risk for becoming an elder orphan; (3) what people are already doing to live well as they grow older; and (4) what’s wrong with the term “elder orphans.”

Elder Orphans: By the Numbers

The research on elder orphans, by Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, has only been presented at a conference, so I can't do what I like to do – read the original report. Media reports, such as this one from CNN, claim that 22 percent of Americans 65 and older are at risk for becoming "elder orphans" who have no spouse and no children and so presumably have no one to care for them when they need help.

Even without a journal article to read, I know that the demographic claims are correct. More and more Americans are living single, and more adults – both single and married – are getting to their senior years without ever having raised any children. Even among those who do raise kids, family size is shrinking. That means that elders have fewer grown kids and fewer (if any) siblings and cousins and relatives of all sorts.

Who Is at Risk for Becoming an "Elder Orphan?"

Are you protected if you are married with children? Are you doomed if you are single and have no children?

The answer to both questions is no. If you marry, you could divorce or outlive your spouse. If neither of those things happens, and if you die before your spouse, that still doesn't mean that your spouse will be there to care for you. Your partner might need just as much help as you do (if not more), or may not be an especially adept caregiver.

Those who do have kids (whether married or single) may also find that progeny is no guarantee, either. Grown children may be preoccupied with jobs, children of their own to care for, or other demands of adult life. They may also live far away. Or they may be estranged.

Perhaps even more interesting is the research showing that when people get married, they become more insular. They become less connected to their siblings and parents than they were when they were single and less attentive to friends and neighbors. Tellingly, these findings cannot be pinned on the demands of children – even those married people who do not have kids withdraw from family and friends, relative to when they were single. In theory, then, older single people could potentially have more people involved in their lives than older married people.

There's no need to fall back on theoretical assumptions, though. There are data on people 65 and older from 6 nations: Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, and the US. Researchers asked which demographic categories of people were most likely to have restricted (small) social networks. They found that people with no kids (whether married or single) did tend to have more restricted networks. There was, though, one important exception. Women who had always been single and who had no kids, in 5 of the 6 nations, were especially likely to have networks that were not restricted. Their networks were especially likely to include friends. (The exception was Australia. However, a different study of even older always-single women in Australia found that they were especially active in social groups and as volunteers.)

What People Are Already Doing to Live Well as They Grow Older

For my book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I traveled around the country asking people to show me their homes and tell me about their lives. I wanted to know if they had found their place, their space, and their people – their "lifespaces." One of the chapters, "Lifespaces for the New Old Age," is about the ways that people are living in their senior years. The subtitle of that chapter is, "Institutions Begone!" Resoundingly, my interviewees proclaimed that they did not want to end up in an institution.

Long before they might get to the point that they could no longer care for themselves, the people I interviewed were coming up with innovative ways to live their lives in defiance of the elder-orphan risk. Some do so by living with others. But many seniors want to live on their own, for as long as they possibly can. They are coming up with innovative ways to accomplish that, too.

Here is some of what I discovered in my research about how seniors are living – ways that are likely to protect them from becoming elder orphans, even if they are single and never had kids.

  • Some are sharing a home with other people. Their housemates could be friends or people they did not know very well when they first moved in together. Their goal, though, was not just to share expenses but to share their lives. You can think of that as the Golden Girls model of senior living.
  • Some are living in multigenerational households or sharing a home with siblings or other family members. This may sound like a lifespace from the past rather than a contemporary iteration, but there is something new about it. Whereas in the past, many seniors ended up with family by default (for example, living with a grown child after becoming widowed), because that was the expected thing to do, now people living in multigenerational or extended family households are doing so because they want to. It is their first choice, a thoughtful one, not an act of mindless compliance with an expectation or a norm. One other thing is new, too: Often people in these households want privacy as well as togetherness; they value some time and space of their own more than they may have in the past.
  • Some are living in neighborhoods that function as real, self-conscious, intentional communities. People in such neighborhoods may have homes of their own or they may live with others, but what's important is that the people who live around them want to share their lives, which sometimes includes sharing a few meals or tending to the neighborhood. Cohousing communities are one example – including communities specifically for seniors – but there are other creative versions as well.
  • Some are living in 55 and older (or 62 and older) communities, or creating their own senior communities in RV parks, manufactured home communities, or tiny house neighborhoods.
  • A few have become honorary grandparents at Hope Meadows, a heartwarming community of families devoted to caring for foster children and raising their children, including many they have adopted. The foster and adoptive parents are living among other such parents who really "get it" about the joys and challenges of their lives. The kids have clusters of playmates up and down the streets of their neighborhood. The kids and their parents have seniors who help them and love them, and the seniors have a whole community of people of all ages who love them back.
  • Other seniors have created a close community of two with a close friend while staying in a home of their own. In one example, two single women share a duplex that is separated by their garages; that way, they both have privacy as well as sociability. In another, two widows live in houses right next door to each other. They, too, have their privacy but see each other all the time.
  • Still others live truly solo, in homes that are not embedded in an intentional community or located next door to a close friend. Yet they, too, have access to any help they may need, by signing up for a local "Village" created specifically to help people stay in their own homes as long as possible. Villages offer rides and help with all sorts of tasks of everyday life, as well as opportunities to socialize for those who are interested.

In the CNN story on elder orphans, a professor of geriatrics is quoted as suggesting that seniors bring caregivers into their own homes when they need more help than Villages or other such arrangements can provide. It is a great suggestion, and several of the people I interviewed also had that possibility in mind. There are at least two challenges, though: Not everyone can afford to hire such caregivers. And, as MacArthur genius Ai-jen Poo noted in her important book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, we don't have nearly enough people available to provide the care that our aging population is going to require, and we don't have the human and policy-based infrastructure to support our growing needs. But by writing her book and spreading the word, she is raising our consciousness and making it that much more likely that "what could feel like the beginning of an epic national crisis in care can in fact be one of our greatest opportunities for positive transformation at every level."

Let’s Dispense With the Term "Elder Orphans"

The “Ageing Without Children” website issued this plea: “Language matters – please don’t call us elder orphans.” Members of the group articulated the many problems with the moniker. For example:

  • It is inaccurate. Orphans are people without parents, they are not adults without children.
  • It trades in the stereotype of older people as childlike.
  • It is pitying, Dickensian, and stigmatizing, and strips elders of any empowerment.
  • It is ageist.

I’ll also add: It is singlist.

As the group suggests, "'Ageing without children’ will do just fine thank you.”

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