Carol Marak helped her aging parents for a total of six years, frequently driving the 125 miles between her home in Dallas and theirs in West, Texas, to shop, clean, cook and do other tasks for them.
“I realized there are so many demands in giving care to an older person,” says Marak, now 67. “I don’t have family to do that for me.”
So in February 2016, she started the Elder Orphans Facebook group, which has since grown to 8,000 members. “I just wanted to know who else is out there like me,” says Marak, who works as an editor for Seniorcare.com.
Turns out, there many Americans like Marak preparing to age without a spouse or adult children who can help. Some prefer the term “solo senior” to refer to this demographic, whose ranks are growing: 22% of people 65 and over are either an elder orphan or at risk of becoming one, according to research by Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York. Only 12% of the women who were 80 to 84 years old in 2010 were childless, but that will increase to 16% for that same age range in 2030, according to a report by AARP.
As big as it is, the Elder Orphan Facebook group remains an exclusive club. Marak estimates she's turned down some 10,000 requests for entry so far, based on applicants' response to three basic screening questions and her perusal of their pages. "I'm tough and vet that closely," she says. She spends about 30 minutes a day moderating the site, down from two hours daily when she first started.
Marak requires that prospective members be age 55 and over, unmarried, and without nearby children. Baby boomers like her face more challenges than their parents did in older age. “We’re not a generation with pensions, and we’ve already spent our inheritance,” says Sheila Zubrod, a former advertising executive in Washington, D.C. who just turned 71 and founder of Agingsolo.com, a web site in development that aims to connect childless baby boomers.
Planning for older age is key, no matter what your family circumstance. But without kin in a position to help, advance planning becomes even more critical, experts say. "Most of the caregiving research assumes that you'll have a family to take care of you — not everyone does," says Anne P. Glass, a gerontology professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Needless to say, this can be frightening. Members of the Elder Orphan Facebook group seek solace among one another, asking advice about everything from revocable trusts, to worries about leaving the working world, to what to cook on a weeknight when delivery pizza won’t cut it anymore. "It's been impossible in my current life to find folks who can understand what I'm facing being 64, never married, no kids, nephews or other relatives in my life," one poster wrote. "I foolishly counted on my 'family of friends' to be around in senior years, but they all have spouses, kids and grandkids, plus oodles of other relatives, and tell me they are too busy to be involved with me."
This may seem depressing, and at times it can be -- but there's hope for any seniors staring down a solo future. "You have to build the infrastructure around yourself to compensate for the fact that you don't have family," says Ken Moraif, senior advisor at Money Matters, a financial planning firm in Dallas. Your safety net should include both friends and paid professionals. Here’s how to assemble your team:
Establish a Buddy System
53% of solo seniors have no one to call if they’re confined to bed, according to a survey of 408 members of the Elder Orphan Facebook group. Another common concern for members is having no one to drive them home from medical procedures.
If you don’t have people to call on, it might be time to rethink your living situation. Marak recently moved from her three-bedroom house in the suburbs into a big apartment building in uptown Dallas. She’s organizing events for residents of her building, many of whom are retirees, with an eventual goal of creating a buddy system where folks can bring food to sick people and otherwise help one another out. The Elder Orphans Facebook group has also formed local meet-up groups, and members get together in real life for lunch and other activities.
Looking for opportunities to connect in your community is key. Whether it’s a weekly worship service, a bridge game at a senior center, or volunteering at a soup kitchen, find an activity you like and show up regularly, so that people will notice when you’re not there. Wilbur Repp, an 83-year-old widower in Renton, Wash., meets for breakfast six days a week with a group of former teachers and policemen.”It gives us something to look forward to in the morning,” he says. If someone doesn’t show up, members will call him to make sure everything’s all right.
Also, help community members before you require help for yourself. “One 89-year-old may drive and another may not,” says Edwin L. Gaskin, a financial planner and founder of Your Financial Architects, a financial advisory firm in Elkridge, Md. “It’s really important to establish those relationships before you need them,” he says.
Lisa Laney, an aging life care professional in Asheville, N.C., has a “just in case” drawer in her desk. It’s filled with the files of potential future clients — older adults who are managing fine now but who contacted her anticipating that they might need help in the future. Her services include helping older people navigate the medical system, accompanying them to doctor’s appointments, and arranging for in-home care. Laney, who has a master’s degree in social work, can also help with non-medical tasks, such as screening handymen to do work around clients’ houses.
She estimates that about 80% of the folks in her “just in case” drawer are elder orphans. She likes to see them for a visit once every six months to a year, to see if anything in their situation has changed. Hourly rates for geriatric care managers range widely, from about $80 per hour to up to around $350 in higher-cost areas of the country.
Laney says many of her clients haven’t considered who will serve as their health care power of attorney, or someone to make medical decisions on their behalf if they’re no longer able to do so. Every person age 18 and over should appoint a health care agent, also known as a proxy, but it’s especially important for people who don’t have family to accompany them to the hospital. You also need a living will, a document that outlines what type of medical interventions you might want or reject, such as help with breathing if you can no longer breathe on your own. Many states bundle the proxy designation and the living will on one form. You can find your state’s advance directive forms here.
For her part, Marak has named her two older sisters as her health care powers of attorney. She knows she might have to change that in the future if they become unwell themselves, but she feels secure for now. Since one sister is six years older and the other is nearly 10 years older, Marak isn't counting on them for hands-on assistance in the future. One of the most valuable lessons Marak says she learned from administering the Elder Orphans Facebook group is that it's important to make plans, and it's equally important to realize that plans can evolve over time. "I've learned how to think through the health care proxy," she says.
As an extra safeguard, Linda Adler, founder and CEO of Pathfinders, a medical advocacy and consulting firm in Northern California, recommends that people carry a laminated card in their wallet listing the name and phone number of their primary care physician, along with all their current medications and dosages. "I don't want my clients to be anonymous when something bad happens," she says. Make sure your primary care doctor knows your wishes, Adler says, so he or she is better positioned to help in an emergency.
Fine-Tune Your Finances
Wilbur Repp has his estate all planned out. A retired teacher, Repp built a considerable side business as a property manager. Working through a charitable organization in the Greater Tacoma area, Repp has made plans upon his death to have his 30 buildings sold and have the proceeds dedicated to scholarships for local students who might otherwise fall through the cracks. "I don't have any pressing heirs for my estate," he says. "It's for the student who is overlooked in the classroom. There's always two or three like that."
For the disposition of his assets, Repp found a trusted partner in a local charitable group. It's important to have people you trust, but they don't have to be related. Michael Amoruso, an elder law attorney in Rye Brook, N.Y., has clients who have named long-term neighbors in their apartment buildings to be their proxy in medical and financial matters.
Just as you’ve named a health care power of attorney, you’ll want to name a financial power of attorney to handle your finances if you’re no longer able to do so yourself. You could name more than one person if you want, for checks and balances. Monitoring services like Eversafe will (for a fee) monitor your bank and credit card accounts for irregular activity and alert a trusted person if suspicious activity is suspected.
Estate plans usually involve what’s known as a “durable” power of attorney. These allow the trusted individual — legally, the “agent” — to retain power of attorney even when the person who created the document—the “principal”—has become incapacitated. It’s important that you create your power of attorney when you’re still in full command of your faculties. If you don’t and you become unable to take care of yourself, then the court system will appoint a legal guardian for you.
“You lose total control,” says Amoruso, who serves as president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
Another way to retain some control over your future care is to purchase a long-term care insurance policy. The median cost of a home health aide is $4,100 a month and the cost of a semi-private nursing home room is $7,148 a month, according to the 2017 Genworth Cost of Care Survey. Consumers with over $2 million of investable assets can generally afford to self-insure against the risk of needing these services, financial advisors say, but those with less should at least consider their options. Gloria Gottlieb, president and registered financial consultant at Your Consultants, an independent insurance broker in New York City, says her firm helps clients fill out the required paperwork when the time comes to claim their benefits, a service that can be particularly useful for those without family to assist.
Trusts can also protect people who are aging solo. You can work with an attorney to set up a revocable trust and place all your assets into the trust. You will likely become the trustee of your own trust, but if you become unable to manage your own affairs then a successor trustee steps in, and the trust can switch from a revocable trust into an irrevocable trust, Amoruso says. Those who have no close associates to appoint as successor trustee can name a corporate trustee, like a bank, to this position. Some of Amoruso's clients work with Midland Trust Company in Tarrytown, N.Y., which charges an annual fee based on assets, starting from 1.25% on the first $1 million and then declining as the balance rises, says Linda A. Mahon, vice president and trust officer. The company includes many services in this fee, including home visits to sort through financial paperwork and tracking down clients' unclaimed pensions. Recalling one particularly complicated situation, Mahon says, "We were calling Singapore at one point."
Trustees have a legal obligation, known as a fiduciary duty, to uphold your wishes as outlined in the legal documents. (Bonus: done properly, this structure can help your estate avoid probate.)
For day-to-day help with your finances, a daily money manager can pay your bills, balance your checkbook, organize your tax papers, and even help with your medical claims. Barbara Boustead, a social worker and daily money manager in Madison, Wisc., has a number of elder orphans as clients. She chooses not to assume financial power of attorney, instead working side-by-side with her clients, but some daily money managers do take on that role. Trust officers can also pay bills for clients. Mahon says her firm has taken over bill paying for a client who is around 90 years old and mentally sharp but losing her eyesight to macular degeneration.
These services can be invaluable for those who can afford them. Those who can't might have to think more creatively. "At this stage of life, my resources are thin," says Elaine Bearden, 61, of Waco, Texas, who recently lost her job as a technical writer in a company reorganization. She plans to open her home to boarders to help defray costs and to create networks of friends who can help one another manage as they get older.
Perhaps most importantly, successful solo aging may require a mind shift for some people. “In our society, we tend to put so much value on being independent,” says Glass, the gerontology professor. “I would argue that you’re better off being inter-dependent, especially as you get older.”
Solo Aging Resources
Use these forms to designate someone to make financial and medical decisions for you if you’re no longer able to make them for yourself.
This website offers consumers a free way to create what the company calls a "Universal Advance Digital Directive" — essentially, a cloud-based living will, health-care proxy and organ-donor form that is legal in all states. You can even upload a video of you expressing your wishes.
These professionals can arrange for in-home care and help with many other tasks, both medical and non-medical in nature. Many have a background in social work and charge anywhere between $80 and $350 an hour.
These professionals help clients with bill paying and other everyday financial tasks.
This web site is a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging connecting. Plug in your zip code and desired service, such as caregiver services or legal assistance, and get options near you.
An elder law attorney is a comprehensive estate planning attorney who can create trusts and other estate planning vehicles but can also help with long-term care planning and other issues specific to seniors.
These professionals help consumers navigate the health care system, including help with bills, and may work independently, in a medical setting, in healthcare or other companies, or on behalf of communities or disease-specific populations.
There are more than 200 Villages in the U.S. and many more in development. These networks are designed to help members age in place. Members pay a $400 fee per year to join and access the services of both volunteers and paid staff, including help driving to appointments and referrals to vetted professionals.
There are about a dozen elder co-housing communities around the U.S., according to Anne P. Glass, a gerontology professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. They share a “do-it-yourself” approach, in which older adults design and implement their communities with no administrator telling them what they can or can't do.