I am. And it's not a comfortable thing to be.
In case the phrase is new to you:
An elder orphan is an old person who is single, lives alone, has no children or family member or friend who can act on his or her behalf in handling health, legal and financial issues.
An elder orphan has no one, or is uncertain of who, to list on that “next of kin” line in forms, no one deisgnated to carry out end-of-life wishes, and see to the funeral and burial.
Some of the media reported on this growing phenomenon following the presentation last weekend of findings on the situation at the meeting of the American Geriatrics Society:
”Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, who is chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at North Shore-LIJ Health System...estimates that nearly a quarter of all elderly Americans could be orphans...
“The outlook for the future is not any brighter,” continues the news story at CNN. “Based on 2012 U.S. Census data, about one third of Americans age 45 to 63 are single, and in a position to become orphans as they age.”
Further, a University of Michigan report referenced in U.S. News estimates that 22 percent of people 65 and older in the United States are elder orphans now or at risk of becoming so.
British Columbia's Seniors Advocate, Isobel Mackenzie, told news1130 that elders in that province of Canada depend on partners or children but like the U.S., that is changing.
“People who are single, people who don’t have children do need to think about how they are going to plan for their future and the aging process. It’s not going to be as clear who make decisions for them, who is their substitute decision maker, who gets their power of attorney who can be their representative.”
Dr. Carney began looking into the problem of elder orphans after she noticed that Super Storm Sandy left many old people who lived near the shore homeless, she told Bankrate, and she believes that single elders should not postpone making decisions:
”If you think you are going to be aging alone, Carney says now - while you still have the financial, mental and physical tools - is the time to figure out a plan. It could be a cooperative living situation, a shared household, a Golden-Girls' style commune or a formal assisted living facility...
"'It isn't a socioeconomic or intelligence issue. It isn't about race or ethnicity. It is the inability to reach out and make connections. That can happen to anybody at any time,' Carney says.”
She's right about that, and I think about it all the time. Hardly a day goes by that I don't.
I have no family. No husband. No children. I have friends I know I could trust but they all live 3,000 miles away. Not ideal but it might work; I just don't put my mind to it.
What else gets in my way (this is an excuse, not a reason) is that I think it's a good idea that advocate(s) be younger than I am – my most trusted friends are my age.
It embarrasses and pains me to admit all this publicly but perhaps it will impress on you (and me) the importance of designating a personal advocate because:
• If I get hit by a truck and am hospitalized, there is no one for the physicians to consult.
• If I have a stroke and can't communicate, there is no one who is authorized to speak for me.
• I do not have a health care proxy. I do not have a durable power of attorney.
• The only thing I have is a newly acquired emergency refrigerator card that lists my primary care physician but that “next of kin” or emergency contact line is empty.
So don't go by my lead. Listen instead to my New York friend, Wendl Kornfeld, who is married but has no children.
Wendl was on to this problem long before Dr. Carney's important advocacy. For the past year or so, Wendl has been conducting Group conversations for elders she calls “the unfamilied” - people like me.
As her notes state:
”The Group urges people without family to be their own strongest advocate and to support that by creating community as their family.”
Wendl, like Dr. Carney, says the time to do this is “RIGHT NOW” and, of course, they are both exactly right.
Stop worrying about which forms should be in place and just get them done – such forms as a will, durable power of attorney, health care proxy, a household handbook, medical history form, wallet card and that refrigerator card – filled in, for god's sake, not empty like mine.
Here's another terrific Wendl idea: “...the '2AM Team,' a couple of people you can call in the middle of the night if necessary. And offer to be on their 2AM team.”
This post doesn't begin to cover it all. For now this is meant to be an ALERT to get us started because, as I often say, if it's happening to me it's happening to millions of others.
Plus, with Dr. Carney's new report, many more - ageing professionals and people like you and me - will be paying attention and willing to help one another.
Let's not allow any of us to become or remain elder orphans.