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How We Can Help Elder Orphans

Many of us are incredibly fortunate to have family and close friends nearby.

As you age, having this support system is critical. Unfortunately, 25 percent of seniors lack a built-in support network. They are known as “elder orphans,” because they may not have anyone to care for them as they age.

Experts say that one thing could be driving this: adults who never had children.

To be clear, not everyone is meant to be a parent. It’s a personal choice. However, adult children usually become caregivers for their aging parents. When someone decides not to have children in their 30s or 40s, they often aren’t thinking about the impact this decision will have later in life. That’s why it’s so important to have a solid network of close friends, social and community connections as you age.

Even with these additional support systems, many Americans are at risk of becoming elder orphans. According to one 2012 study, about one-third of Americans between age 45 to 63 are single and many of them have never been married or had children. Without a spouse or child to care for them, people in this group could be without a caregiver in their later years.

Though the numbers are trending in the wrong direction, older adults can do several things to care for themselves as they age:

Have a Plan

Start planning and saving for long-term care as early as you can. Without a family member to act as a caregiver, paying for a nursing home or assisted living facility can be incredibly expensive. Set aside money—even a little at a time—in a special account for this care and for medical emergencies.

Designate Someone to Make Your Health Care Decisions

In the event of a major health issue, you’ll need someone to make decisions on your behalf. If you have a close friend or relative (like a sibling, nephew or cousin), ask that person if he or she would be willing to serve as your proxy or power of attorney. This should be someone you trust, as you’ll need to provide this person with confidential information about your medical history, social security number and your health care wishes.

If you don’t have anyone you trust to do this, hire an attorney who can put all your wishes in writing.

Maintain social connections

Friends often become our family. If you don’t have a child, spouse or close relative nearby, friends can be there to help.

Social connections have a positive impact on your health as you age. Studies have shown that extreme loneliness increases the risk of early death by 19 percent. Being connected to others improves your emotional well-being and increases your level of physical activity. Meeting with friends at a senior center or volunteering at your church or local charitable organization are good ways to get out of the house and stay mobile. These social connections also can serve as a support system if you ever need help.

On a larger scale, we as a country can do more to help, as well. We need more programs that help elder orphans stay in their homes and live as independently as possible. We need to find a way to make caregiving more affordable, so that seniors without family members to care for them can afford to stay in a long-term facility. We also need to do a better job with early intervention. If we identify seniors who are at risk earlier, we can take steps to build a support system around them and put a plan in place so that they are cared for as they age.

Each generation has a responsibility to the next. We must take steps to give seniors the care they need and deserve.

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