October 19, 2017
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How to recognize and help our orphaned elders

By: Julie Ann Soukoulis
October 6, 2017
Spotlight On Seniors

 An orphaned elder is a person who has crossed into the seventies and eighties or above, without family or significant others. They may have acquaintances and neighbors, but once the symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s begin to set in - there is no one who feels responsible to help or step in and more often than not - this is when the vulnerability of elder abuse and manipulation set in.

Current experts on elder care worry that there will not be enough nursing homes or elder care facilities to account for the growing number of aging seniors who are currently completely on their own. As of 2012, there were 43 million people over 65 in the U.S., up from 35 million in 2002. 

Dr. Kenneth Brummell-Smith, a professor of geriatrics at the Florida State University College of Medicine, asserts that the number of elder orphans will likely rise as Baby Boomers - the generation born between 1946 and 1964. The oldest Baby Boomers turned 65 in 2011; the youngest - are projected to require health care through about 2060. Case in point: 

There is a 76-year-old man we can call Jake. Jake tried to take his own life. His health had been deteriorating. He was admitted to North Shore University Hospital on Long Island. 

The doctors decided that Jake would not be able to go back to living by himself. His condition and complications made this obvious. With his only family living completely across the country - there was no social support in the area. As a result, Jake was placed, possibly permanently, into a nursing home. 

Jake’s story is not unusual. More often than not - these seniors are single or widowed. It is a commonly seen in a case study of the problem of “elder orphans.” These seniors have no children, at least in the area and no tangible support system. They find themselves alone, with no one to help care for them when they need it most. 

Current research shows:     

The problem of elder orphans has been around for a while.  Recent research suggests it is a bigger problem than previously thought. Around 22 percent of Americans who are 65 years and older, are in immediate danger of becoming, or already are, an elder orphan. 

Dr. Maria Torroella Carney is the chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at North Shore-LIJ Health System. She is the doctor who treated Jake. She has proposed that nearly a quarter of all elderly Americans could already be or are soon to become elder orphans. This statement is based on articles that have been published in medical and nursing journals that have been reflecting on the prevalence of childless or friendless elders at a more local level. Dr. Carney presented the findings at the American Geriatrics Society’s annual meeting on May, 15-17. 

The outlook on this issue looking into the future is not appearing much brighter. Based on the available 2012 U.S. Census data, there are one third of Americans from age 45 through 63 that are single and in a position to become an orphan as they age. According to Dr. Carney; “This is something I’ve dealt with over the years,” “this population is likely going to increase and we don’t understand them well enough.” “I wanted to bring awareness, like a call-to-action, to state and federal governments.”   

Carney hopes that current research will cause the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as well as other agencies, to determine the actual numbers and scope of this most vulnerable population. The Silver Tsunami:

Few studies have been conducted that were designed to look into why so many members of the so-called “Silver Tsunami” are at such a high risk of becoming elder orphans.

Some suggest that a decision to remain childless may be a contributing factor. “My generation was one of the first that elected not to have children,” stated Dr. Joyce Varner, director and professor of the Adult-Geron Primacy Care NP track program at the University of South Alabama. This is a program teaching nurse practitioners how to provide primary care, especially for the elderly. 

“I began to see this problem in the 1990s as a nurse practitioner” according to a statement by Varner; “I see a lot of sadness and regret on the part of the elderly people who decided not to have children,” she says she sees “A lot of fear. ‘How are we going to get care? Is there going to be anyone with me at the end of life?’” Varner reports.

According to Varner’s research, an estimated 60 percent of nursing home residents do not receive regular visitors. According to Varner, the new study is “wonderful, strictly from the standpoint of making people more aware of the problem.” 

“I am going to be an elder orphan, too,” said Varner, who reports being 59 years of age. She and her husband chose not to have children. They have prepared financially and built up a network of friends, specifically to help them when they need it. She advises everyone who can to do the same. Carney hopes that her research, along with studies leading to a better idea of the prevalence of elder orphans, will get experts talking. Carney wants new programs to lead to more research. Programs that are created to support these elders, as well as their necessary caregivers, along with their families. 

Another study projects that by 2030 - about 5.3 million seniors will be living in nursing homes. This includes hospitals, rehabilitation and skilled nursing facilities, as well as hospice care programs. This is up from at least 1.3 million Americans in 2012. Naturally, Varner now worries that there may not be enough nursing homes and assisted-living facilities for this big rush of people who are about to need one. 

Many experts now think that part of the answer could be to bring caregivers into the homes of elder orphans. For example, Money Follows the Person is a Medicaid-funded program. The program is designed to help younger adults with disabilities stay in the home. This approach may be the most cost effective and compassionate approach to helping elder orphans. 

Dr. Carney now thinks that crises such as the one that Jake experienced could be prevented if seniors and their health care providers, relatives and friends - made a focused effort to establish connections with support programs and facilities in the area. “If we had known he was an elder orphan, we could have intervened earlier,” she said.

If you become aware of an elder living alone or with others whose intentions you find questionable, get involved. Elder decline and suffering happen when vulnerable elders are left on their own without others tracking their cognitive decline. Cognitive decline is an inevitable part of aging. Make sure you know that any of the elders in your circle-of-life are safe, comfortable, and have all the dignity and support they need.  Planning ahead and being educated on your options is key to successful aging!

For more information, contact my office, Home Instead Senior Care 707-586-1516.

 Julie Ann Soukoulis is the owner of Home Instead Senior care office in Rohnert Park, mother of two and passionate about healthy living at all ages. Having cared for her own two parents, she understands your struggles and aims, through her website, educate and encourage seniors & caregivers. Have a caregiving or aging concern? She’s love to hear from you at 586-1516 anytime.