About 18 months ago, I started a conversation here about elder orphans. It is a distinct characteristic of old age for tens of millions of old people but recognized as such only recently.
Somehow I dropped the ball on this and am only now getting back to it. The intention this time (and you are allowed to call me out if I don't follow through) is to cover the issues in installments that will appear here on a regular basis – about once a month or so.
Let's start today with the definition – who/what is an elder orphan? This is more important and more complicated than I anticipated because as I began catching up on the newest information, I was shocked at the universally negative description of life in old age itself and worse for elder orphans. Some samples.
Even Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York City (who may or may not have coined the phrase, elder orphans, paints a terrible picture.
”According to Carney,” writes Carol Marak in Huffington Post, “older adults have a higher risk of having trouble with daily tasks, experience cognitive decline, develop coronary heart disease and even die.
“The risks increase for people living alone and socially isolated. They have higher incidences of medical complications, mental illness, mobility issues and health care access problems. This is not good news for us, the single without children.”
Well, geez, just shoot me now.
”...once 65 hits, the changes bring reminders that we’re no longer the same. We don’t move as quickly, we don’t multitask as well, nor do we easily adapt. “Those are the simple cues. As we age, the physical and mental challenges delivered through loss, immobility and dependence are the ones that put us at higher risks.
“However, the effects of aging land harder on an 'elder orphan,' because the worry and concern of 'what will become of me if I can’t care for myself?' triples when no one is around.”
There is no way to know where that “triples” reference comes from nor do I buy it. Not for a minute do I think elder orphans worry three times as much as non-orphans about the effects of aging.
However, even without that hysterical tone, some academics sound as dire in their definitions of elder orphans: “both childless and friendless;” “people over 65 who are single or widowed, have no children at least in the area, and no support system;” “have low social capital.”
Some of you who have been here at TGB for a number of years perhaps recall what I discovered about the literature of growing old after I had been studying aging for half a dozen years. As I wrote in the About page for this blog:
”...I spent the greater part of my time away from the workplace researching what it is like to grow old. I wanted to know what I was in for and it wasn't a pretty picture.
“Whether popular books, magazines and newspapers, scholarly and academic research, psychology and medical texts, movies, TV shows, advertising and comedy too, the conclusions were universal: old age was all about the three Ds – disease, decline and decay leading to a fourth D, death.”
And that was the best anyone had to say about growing old which is why I adopted the subtitle for this blog, "what it's really like to get old." It's nowhere near that bad.
In the decade since then, as the boomers have reached the beginning of their elder years, old age has become “cool” to write about as both popular and academic reporting has taken a more realistic and positive attitude toward it.
Except, apparently, among the people who have at least acknowledged the existence of elder orphans. I'm going to assume that these people mean well but I reject their descriptions of old age just as I did a dozen years ago.
Yes, some old people will become sick, lonely and dependent on family or others but nowhere near a majority of old people and I'll back that up with research and statistics in a future post.
Today, let's get to a definition of an elder orphan. At the risk of stringing out what would have been a one-page blog post until I started reading, here is a definition in list form from Ms. Marak's Huffington Post story linked above:
”Who are elder orphans?” she writes.
• We are the socially and physically isolated aged living in local communities
• We live without a family member or a designated surrogate
• We have a higher vulnerability to losing the decision-making capacity
• We use only a few community resources and are lonely
• We have a high risk of losing independence and safety
• We aren’t acknowledged (as a group) that will need more attention and care”
No. NO. NO. There is no evidence for a word of that.
Lack of family or close friend, in itself, does not make anyone more vulnerable, lonelier, less safe or liable to loss of cognitive abilities than old people with children or close friends.
I suspect Ms. Marak has confused research on loneliness in old age with being an elder orphan. Some elder orphans are lonely. Some old people with families are lonely. The two characteristics are not synonymous and alone is not the definition of lonely.
Here is a better definition of an elder orphan from 18 months ago:
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 designated to carry out end-of-life wishes, and see to the funeral and burial.”
That was a decent definition a year and a half ago but it needs expanding at least this much: Some old people who have children or other family members are elder orphans because they are estranged from their family or children and/or don't want them involved in decision making.
It's amazing how many people I've run into who feel this way. Having relatives doesn't mean you trust them – or even like them.
As my friend Wendl Kornfeld – who knows a whole lot about elder orphans and who you will be hearing more from during this series of blog posts – says:
”We urge people without family to be their own strongest advocate and to support that by creating a community as their family.”
And that is what we will do in this series: break down the issue into easily doable chunks. And we will do it without making anyone feel that being an elder orphan is a calamity that makes our lives worse than that of other old people. It is not.