Visit any retirement community on a Saturday or Sunday and you will find lots of visitors milling around the common areas, coming and going from individual apartments, ushering loved ones into cars and whisking them off to lunch in a nearby restaurant or eating in the dining hall as guests. Almost all of these visitors are family and most are adult children and grandchildren of the residents. You can also see it in the country, the suburbs or the city in any restaurant serving lunch or brunch on the weekend. You can see it in urban parks as well–families making sure their oldest members get out of their homes once a week or receive a visit, reminding them they are not alone in the world.
But what happens to the elders in our society who do not have family to take them to lunch, help them buy a new pair of shoes or show them pictures of a 10-year-old great grandchild in her little league uniform? Who can they count on for companionship and aide when they reach a point in life where they cannot do everything for themselves?
Seeds of Change Were Sown in the 1960s
Today, in 21st century America, aging alone is becoming common. Almost 20% of Boomers do not have children. How and why did that happen? The seeds of this change were planted by the Baby Boomers in the 1960s and 1970s. Women had new college and career opportunities–choices their mothers and grandmothers did not enjoy–and they had “the pill.” Many women chose career over family and some chose not to marry or they married and divorced. Those women and their male counterparts are now in their 50s, 60s and 70s. They are solo agers.
In addition to the 20% who did not have children, thousands more have kids who are estranged, not functional or live very far away. They are solo agers too. If these millions of solo agers are to ensure a safe and secure future for themselves, they will need to prepare. They will need to recruit (or hire) someone to have their power of attorney for both health and finances. They will need to figure out where they want to be living in their oldest years and where they will get aid when it becomes necessary.
The oldest old tell us that a critical ingredient for a happy life is having friends and loved ones nearby, so even though the issues of money and health loom large in later life, building and maintaining a social support network, especially for solo agers, is of paramount importance. In fact, without this social support network, older adults become isolated, lonely, and are more likely to encounter an earlier death.
What does this mean for the millions of solo agers in the U.S. and around the world? Planning is key. Starting in their mid-fifties, and certainly by their early seventies, solo agers should be contemplating where they want to spend their latest years. If the answer is a retirement community, much of the challenge of isolation and loneliness disappear for all but the most committed loners. However, if the answer is to age in a single-family home, the challenges of maintaining that social network are greater.
Belonging to a virtual village can help. Most villages have built-in social systems that promote engagement on a daily basis. They can also be helpful as a resource bank for their members. Need someone to walk the dog while you are recuperating from minor surgery? Refrigerator making an odd noise? Can’t get groceries during a snowstorm? The village concierge can connect a member to a volunteer who can help or the resource they need. Villages are not a fool-proof way of connecting, but they are better than going it alone.
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