Sara Zeff Geber, Contributor
May 20, 2021
Twelve million adults over age 65 live alone. That is 27% of the population–the highest rate in the world. The majority are women, and by age 75, the rate of women living alone rises to 44%.
With the mobility in today’s society, many family members live far away. Among boomer women, 19.4% never gave birth, so there are no children or grandchildren at all to pick up the mantle of caregiving. These numbers are very different from those of preceding generations.
Robert Putnam, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, who wrote Bowling Alone in 2000, has captured the issues confronting baby boomers and the generations that follow and described it as a loss of social capital (connections among human beings). He talks about how the changes in society–family structure, women’s roles, work life–that have come about since the 1960s, have led to a very different climate for older adults today and in the coming years. In Putnam’s words, “the generation that bowled alone will now age alone.”
Why is this a problem? Older Americans today are entering the years in which 70% of us will likely need care. Without a strong familial and/or social network, there may be no one to provide the kind of care being given by the families of our current 80, 90, and 100+ year-olds. Boomers must take matters into their own hands and begin to explore their options and available resources for the future.
The best resource solo aging boomers have today is the opportunity to plan for those less-independent years. That plan involves forming and maintaining a community–a support network. Wealthier boomers may choose to solve that problem by moving into a community where they will be surrounded by like-minded others and assured care for the rest of their lives. These are called CCRCs (Continuing Care Retirement Communities) or LifePlan communities. Unfortunately, in addition to be very expensive, many of these communities do not have the appeal for boomers that they may have had for earlier well-heeled generations. However, the builders and operators of CCRCs are working hard to understand and meet the needs of this next generation of elders.
In addition to traditional CCRCs, there is a burgeoning crop of less traditional senior living options that may be enticing. An great example is the 2Life Communities being developed in the Boston area. They have communities aimed at lower and middle-income boomers, all designed with the underlying belief that everyone deserves to live a life of stability, purpose, and connection. Inspired by Jewish values and funded by public and private monies, the 2Life Communities are for people of every faith, race, and background and their residents include immigrants from many lands. This is forward thinking and 2Life is definitely on the right track for boomers.
As AARP never ceases to tell us, most boomers want to “ age in place.” However, for many boomers that has become unattainable for financial reasons or unrealistic because of the need for care and to avoid social isolation. Solo agers are particularly vulnerable as they attempt to age successfully in single-family homes, especially those in the isolated suburbs with few transportation options. However, aging in place need not be synonymous with aging alone. Solo boomers who are willing to take a hard look down the road, confront the odds that they are not going to be able to manage alone when they are in their late 80s, 90s, and beyond, and begin to make changes while in their 60s and 70s, will be far less likely to face a crisis (if only a crisis of loneliness) in the future.
Alternatives to Living Alone
Home sharing. Whether you live in a home you might share with others or are willing to move into a home with others, home sharing–a la The Golden Girls–is turning out to be the right answer for increasing numbers of solo agers. There are matching services, like Silvernest , that can facilitate an arrangement anywhere in the country.
Creating ADUs. In many areas around the country it is legal to erect auxiliary dwelling units (ADUs) on a property with an existing home. The dwelling has many possibilities, among them renting to another solo ager, installing a younger family member, offered to a young person for a reduced rent in exchange for household help and companionship, or used by a caregiver.
Relocation. Relocating to a safer style of home (one level, fewer square feet, newer and more age-friendly appointments) is, for many people, the best option. It might be a condominium or apartment complex near shopping and services, a smaller, one-level home in a 55+ (also called Active Adult) community, or a mobile home park. All of these options provide far more opportunities to befriend neighbors and build community than a single-family home in an isolated suburb.
The cost of denial
As the years go by, those born between 1946 and 1964 get closer and closer to a time when health and vitality can no longer be taken for granted. Some are already there, but many more have their heads deep in the sands of denial. This is scariest of all for solo agers. Without good planning and foresight, one cardiac incident, one moment of disorientation that leads to a fall, one cancer diagnosis (and so much more) can lead to months or even years of being shuttled around from one unpleasant nursing home to the next, possibly even being rendered a ward of the court. No one wants that!
How can solo agers avoid this doomsday scenario?
- Find a place to live where you are not isolated
- Join organizations in order to meet new candidates for your social network (places of worship, civic groups, volunteer groups, service clubs, interest groups, etc.
- Discuss your wishes for later life with your friends and existing family ; choose one or two people to be your advocates and fill them in on what they should do for you in a crisis
- Find affordable experts and use them. Create an estate plan and a financial plan
- Start talking. You will probably discover that many of your friends have similar concerns.
- Start trusting. Find someone you trust and give them access to your documents (keys, passwords, location of records, name and contact information for your medical professionals and any family you’d like them to contact
- Learn about resources in your area. The most informed source of what and who is available in your area is through your local Area Agency on Aging. They will have an updated list of all the certified senior advisors, elder law attorneys, licensed fiduciaries, senior living communities, and other senior services in your area.
One final thought: if you are not a solo ager yourself, you probably have a friend or extended family member who qualifies. Offering to be a part of your loved one’s plan can be a good way to help them get started.
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