Aging alone doesn’t mean going it alone

Without support that others may have, take the time to develop alternatives

By Betsy Butler, Ohio Public Employees Retirement System

June 1, 2023 – Those of us who haven’t married or had children have become accustomed to being on our own, being able to do what we want, when we want. We cherish our independence.

But we should be prepared for the day when we could benefit from a helping hand. Likely to age alone, we “solo agers” lack a support system that many older people count on: adult children. Who will be there to help us if we can’t care for ourselves?

The same goes for “elder orphans” – single or widowed people over age 65 who no longer have immediate family to rely on and may be socially and/or physically isolated. They account for nearly a quarter of older adults living in the United States, including those who are at risk of becoming elder orphans in the future.

This demographic – those aging alone with limited support, who often go unrecognized by health care providers and the community alike – is expected to increase as our population continues to age and have more chronic illnesses. It’s a trend that shows no signs of reversing.

Solo agers’ vision of a fulfilling life in our later years should incorporate financial security, good health and physical well-being, self-awareness, adaptability and flexibility, faith and a strong social network.

Other people are key to our survival. We need to determine whom we wouldn’t hesitate to call if we need something. Or how we would manage if we weren’t able to take care of or advocate for ourselves. Blood relatives are not always a guaranteed source of reliable support. Our inner circle of friends we made in our younger years might have changed, and they won’t be around forever. Maybe you’ve already discovered both of those facts the hard way, and you’re still struggling to come up with someone you’d be able to rely on in a future crisis.

We can’t be caught unprepared. Now is the time to work on developing a surrogate family of friends and neighbors whom we could count on to potentially keep tabs on us. We can strengthen our existing relationships by expanding our social network to include people of all ages, seeking out those who share similarities, complement us with different and interesting perspectives, and offer enjoyable, fulfilling companionship. Cultivating our ties to others not only helps to make life meaningful and satisfying, but also keeps isolation and loneliness at bay.

While we’re independent, we can start making plans, considering whom we could call on to help with everything from paying bills, handling daily tasks, helping with personal care and managing medications to making financial, medical and legal decisions, especially if we’re unable to make them for ourselves. Geriatric care managers – those who can coordinate rehabilitation or home care – are prudent to have on call when our health deteriorates. AARP’s family caregiving guide identifies steps we need to take to cover ourselves in event of a crisis.

Then there’s the matter of where we want to live as we age. Joining a continuing care retirement community appeals to some. To make a choice, consider practical matters like history of fee increases, current occupancy rate and financial condition, whether current residents seem happy and engaged, and whether staff members are respectful and how much they can assist residents with basic needs.

Aging in place is the answer for others. Think about what you like and dislike about your current home and neighborhood. Can you afford to keep living there after retirement? At some point, you likely are not going to be able to drive anymore. What transportation options does it offer, or is the community small enough where you could walk nearly everywhere? Does your neighborhood offer a Village to Village Network, offering practical help to older people still living at home? How could your home accommodate changes in your mobility, or having a caretaker move in? AARP’s HomeFit Guide  is a thorough resource to consult in creating an age-friendly home.

Since we know in advance that we don’t have the support that others take for granted, we have the time to develop alternatives. Our to-do list should include coming up with a long-term care plan before a crisis hits. Think through the options, and plans can easily be set in motion when the time comes. If you never need those plans, that’s even better.

The same goes for exploring important matters like long-term care insurance, advance health care directives, power of attorney for finances, and professional guardianship.

There are things we can do to reduce our odds of needing care, or at least postponing our need for it. One of them is taking a 20-minute walk each day. Time to get started.

For more, check out “Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers: A Retirement and Aging Roadmap for Single and Childless Adults,” by Sara Zeff Geber.

Betsy Butler

Betsy Butler is the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System’s knowledge and issues strategist, researching information on pensions, retirement and health care. Betsy came to OPERS in 2009 after working as a special collections librarian for two OPERS employers: the Ohio History Connection and Miami University.

Betsy Butler

Knowledge & Issues Strategist

Leave a Reply

We encourage your comments on the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System’s PERSpective blog. We can’t respond to every comment. Please be aware that we review all comments before they’re posted, and we reserve the right to edit, not publish or remove any comment that in our sole discretion does not further the purpose of the blog. For further details, please see our Comments Policy.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *