Carolyn Rosenblatt, Contributor
March 26, 2023
Aging solo is about those individuals who are widowed or not married, live alone, and have no family or none they can count on. They are going through the last years of their lives on their own. It can be just fine until one’s health declines and the usual activities and access to friends get out of reach.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau Nearly one-third of all seniors live by themselves. That's close to 14 million seniors aging alone. Some of them do not have children, nor any particular person to take care of them, should they need help at some point.
Publications about solo aging appear in various media, always with the idea that the solo ager is just fine and can manage well, because they have friends whom they can count on if needed. But that can turn out to be unrealistic and dangerous.
A Real Life Solo Ager In Trouble
As an example, a financial manager once asked me to visit a client of his, Roberta, age 88, living alone. He was understandably concerned that if she fell or had physical troubles she could be in serious danger. He was right, as I learned when I visited her.
She owned her own well-kept home. She could get around and was still driving. She had a “quickie” estate plan done for free at the local senior center by a volunteer attorney. I reviewed it. It was just not adequate to address her potential need for care, as the person she named to take charge, if needed, of her finances (Power of Attorney) and her health care decisions lived out of the U.S. That person was her only living relative.
I asked this alert, functioning senior, alone in her home, what she would do in case of an emergency. What would she do if she needed help right away? She told me about her best friend, Vanessa, who lived down the block. They had been friends for decades. She said she’d call Vanessa. I asked how old Vanessa was. “She’s 90” Roberta told me. “She’s legally blind but she gets around very well. She can’t drive anymore but I can really count on her if I need help.”
I could see trouble ahead. I asked about the cousin who lived out of the U.S. Roberta was fond of her, but they had little contact. I asked for the cousin’s contact information and emailed her about my concerns for Roberta. Cousin said she was really busy right now but she’d get in touch with Roberta in a month or two. That was unsettling for me.
This is a true example of how some solo agers think they’ve done the planning they need to be fine. As you can see from Roberta’s case, it’s not fine. Her best friend is not likely to be able to be of sufficient help if Roberta takes a fall, which she has already done. She did not get injured in that fall but she was lucky. She might not be the next time. If Roberta goes to the hospital, there is no one to watch over what happens. One of my mantras is Never Go To A Hospital Without An Advocate! With my nursing background and more recent experience with elders who get hospitalized, I can only say too much can go wrong when you have no one to speak up for you and ensure that your wishes are honored in a hospital.
The Safer Planning Options
A solo ager whose best friends are about the same age may not be able to do what the solo ager imagines they could do when a serious problem arises. Here are options every solo ager should consider:
- Think about naming a professional, licensed person, called a fiduciary in some states, to handle finances in your estate plan , (Name a Power of Attorney with credentials or experience). If you become unable to manage your money for any reason, the fiduciary will be authorized to step in and protect what assets you have.
- Healthcare can be a minefield for anyone who is cognitively or physically impaired for making decisions. Consider also naming a professional in your estate planning as your healthcare agent. Choose someone who knows our healthcare system and can advocate for you if needed. A retired medical professional you know would be a wise choice if they are willing to be in that position.
- Make your wishes and preferences clear in your estate documents so that even someone who does not know you well can follow your instructions.
- Give up the idea that you are going to be perfectly fine until you breathe your last breath. Most people are not, and need some assistance as they age. You may not get to pick exactly how you will age. Be realistic and choose younger people to be in charge should you need it.
- Independent thinking is a hallmark of the solo ager. Great. Until you can’t be totally independent any longer. No one likes to think about disabling conditions, nor losing independence. But it’s a fact of life for many. Planning can keep you safer than not planning for the possibility.
I hope that the true example of Roberta, above, can serve as a wake-up call to anyone who has not considered that aging solo has a downside. If you think it through, you can indeed do it well. And the upside is that no family brawls will happen over what they want versus what you want. But having no family also poses its own risks. Seek out and befriend younger people besides your own age-mates. Be realistic as to what aging can do. And may you have a successful solo aging journey.
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