by Ann Robson

What exactly does “aging” mean?

It seems to depend on an arbitrary number: 50. AARP will invite you to join them sometime around your 50th birthday. They still do that but have come to realize that 50 isn’t really ‘old’ any more. In an informal discussion at the NC AARP office, volunteers suggested that there is ‘new old’: 50-65; ‘middle old’: 66-80; ‘old old’: 81+.

Recently, the American Society on Aging brought us new terms: ‘Solo Agers’ and ‘Orphan Elders’. A solo ager is someone who is living alone, probably never married, and has no children. An elder orphan may also be living alone, may be divorced or widowed, but has children. Having family that may be able to help an elder parent is the difference between the two. However, their needs as they age are similar. The help available is quite different.

A safety net of a spouse, son or daughter who will pick up the caregiver mantle is not universally available. Often children will have moved away from where their parents live. Blended families present another set of problems as to who should be the one to help. The elder parent may resist outside help and that makes life difficult for all involved.

In a caregiving class I used to teach, I was surprised to learn that many children who came to visit for a weekend, or a week, didn’t see the needs of their parent. 

The ASA reports that this problem of solo aging is likely to seriously affect the baby boomer generation. They are having fewer children and grandchildren. Sue Zeff Geber, who conducted the survey for ASA, pointed out that “In subtle and not so subtle ways, the baby boomers are a very different population cohort than we have ever seen before and many of them will not have family nearby, or at all.”

Because both solo and orphan elders may have no one to take responsibility for power of attorney, medical power of attorney, and all the legal things required should they not be able to conduct business on their own, they should have as much as possible assigned while they are still well.

About 22 percent of older adults in the United States fall in to the solo or orphan group according to a 2016 study, reports Judith Graham in the Washington Post. She quoted Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, head of geriatric and palliative medicine at Northwell Hospital in New York: “What strikes me is how many of these elder orphans are woefully unprepared for aging.”

We are unprepared because we are living longer and few in the generation that raised us had any words of wisdom for us. Many of us had left home by the time our parents started to have aches and pains, mobility issues, difficulties in most areas of their lives. The mantra “I don’t want to be a burden to my children” has been heard by us more than once.

We are living longer than the generation before us. We’re pioneers in this thing called aging. It’s up to us to be responsible models and leave a trail for those coming after so the solo or orphan elder will know how to manage this thing called aging. 

No one says aging is easy but with careful planning aging can be a wonderful phase of life. We will all age differently but can be part of a thriving group of other elders. We don’t have to be solo or orphan elders when there are so many of us around.

Ann Robson is the author of “Over My Shoulder: Tales of Life and Death and Everything In Between.” She may be reached at overmyshoulder@charter.net .