Aging brings on many changes that could contribute to loneliness. Family and friends move or pass away. We develop difficulty with mobility – especially when we can no longer drive safely. Our physical condition changes – hearing loss, low vision, incontinence. No matter our circumstances now, there is no guarantee that we will not be alone in our later years – whether ‘never married’ or married with no children, divorced or widowed. We may outlive or become estranged from our immediate families.
In any case, aging alone requires a different set of resources and mental tools than those who have an established supportive network.
More people are aging alone
To describe aging alone, National Institute on Health uses the concept of elder orphan. An elder orphan is an older person without adult children, spouse, relatives or other support groups to rely on for assistance, companionship and help during their senior years. Experts agree that the number of folks who fall under this definition is on the rise.
Be aware of these impacts:
- Elder orphans are more vulnerable to the negative effects of aging than older adults who have a support system in place.
Changes to physical condition and mobility not only create the negative effect of feeling alone; loneliness can also take a toll on one’s physical, mental and emotional health.
- Loneliness acts on the body in a way that is similar to chronic stress. It raises the levels of stress hormones which impairs immune responses and contributes to inflammation, mental illness and conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Feelings of loneliness can increase the risk of chronic disease, depression, dementia and death.
- Research shows that social isolation is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Brigham Young University).
- Elder orphans could experience premature placement in a long-term care facility, overuse of emergency services and greater risk of elder abuse, fraud and scams.
How to plan ahead
For those of us approaching the second half of our lives there are things that we can do to be proactive to reduce the risk of aging alone and becoming isolated. We need to make plans while we are still able and have a say in how we want to live out our lives. We need to set up a safety net.
1. Prepare your legal documents
- Do you have a Durable POA? A document that authorizes another person to handle your banking, financial and legal affairs if you lose your mentally capacity.
- Have you assigned someone to be your Health Care Surrogate (Medical POA)? Identifying someone who can help make health care decisions for you when you are unable. Don’t shy away from having an open and honest conversation about what you want and don’t want for your care.
- Do you have an Advanced Directive? A legal document that lets your wishes concerning medical treatments at the end of life be known.
- Do you have a Will? No matter how little or how much you have, a will ensures that whatever personal belongings and/or assets you do have will go to the beneficiaries you designate.
2. Decide where you want to live
If you want to stay in your home, ask yourself these questions: Do you feel safe in your neighborhood? Do you know your neighbors? Do you feel a ‘sense of community’? When you are no longer able to drive, how will you get to the store, medical appointments or social functions? Would you consider moving to be closer to family, friends and/or resources?
Additionally, there are more options including:
- Senior Living Community - a developed community where the feel, layout, and amenities are designed to meet different levels of care at different price points. These communities vary greatly and range from subsidized low income to more expensive private pay facilities; from independent living to skilled nursing care.
- A Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) offers all the above levels of care and the bonus of being able to live within the same community throughout your life.
- Shared Living – Think “The Golden Girls”. It’s a living arrangement between two or more - usually - unrelated people who choose to live together to take advantage of the mutual benefits living together can offer - companionship, cost savings and a feeling of security.
- Communal – Think the ‘60’s & 70’s’. A community of people living together and sharing property, possessions and resources.
- Co-Housing – This is an ‘intentional’ neighborhood of individually owned homes/condos clustered around shared space.The thing that differentiates co-housing from a regular community is the commitment to being part of the neighborhood for everyone’s mutual benefit. Shared common values are present among the people living there.
3. Consider working with a Geriatric Care Manager
A geriatric care manager helps seniors with long-term care planning and arrangements. They can put together a comprehensive plan for both your present and future needs - household chores, managing medications, transportation for shopping and appointments, meal preparation, handling finances, etc. A geriatric care manager allows you to continue to live in your home for as long as possible and will help navigate different care options when needed. They can follow you throughout all your life’s transitions.
4. Strengthen your social network
Look at your circle of friends. Having friends of all ages has several advantages. Not only will you be introduced to new ideas and different views on life you will be able to lean on the younger ones when challenges come along. Sometimes it’s hard to make new friends as we age; consider volunteering, joining a club, or taking a class.
5. Incorporate technology
Technology helps us facilitate independence and stay connected to the outside world. For seniors, ‘smart’ technology such as sensors, voice activation, GPS and smartphone monitoring apps make aging in place easier.
There are several practical apps that could help make life easier, including:
- Health apps - Blood Pressure Monitor, Pillboxie
- Assistant apps - Eye Reader, Silver Surf
- News apps – Flipboard, Weather Channel
- Entertainment apps – Lumosity, Yesterday USA
Search the internet, using Google, for anything, including finding books on a topic of interest. For example, Sara Zeff Geber's “Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers: A Retirement and Aging Roadmap for Single and Childless Adults" looks at the challenges of aging alone and explores pragmatic ways to plan for the future. You could also read more articles about technology for seniors such as Complete guide to a smart home for the elderly and 10 smart home features to help you age in place.
Promoting social connection, in February 2016 Carol Marak started a Facebook group for elder orphans to share ideas and discuss the challenges and complexities of aging alone. Joining this or another group connected by technology can be a fun way to extend your sense of community.
Aging alone is a potential reality for all of us but with the right preparation and proactive measures we can alleviate the risks associated with isolation and loneliness.