Experts Predict a Growing Population of "Elder Orphans"

Seniors sitting on a park bench

While many of our readers are serving as family caregivers or have done so in the past, a Caring Right at Home poll showed that only 25 percent are confident they would have an adequate family support system if they were to need care in the future.

AARP experts report that seniors who are receiving care today have an average pool of seven people who can help. But as the boomers themselves begin to need care, the balance will shift alarmingly. Many baby boomers are unmarried, and boomers had fewer children. AARP senior policy analyst Lynn Feinberg predicts, "By 2050, the caregiver support ratio, which was 7.2 when boomers were in their peak caregiving years, is projected to drop to 2.9 when the boomers reach their eighties."

Some seniors will have no family members at all to assist them, says Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, a geriatrician with North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York. Dr. Carney says these "elder orphans" are "vulnerable to a wide range of negative outcomes that include functional decline, mental health issues and premature death." She cites a University of Michigan study showing that 22 percent of people older than 65 are (or at risk of becoming) elder orphans. Dr. Carney cautions, "We have a sense that this will be a growing population as society ages and life expectancy increases, and our government and society need to prepare how to advocate for this population."

AARP and Dr. Carney both call for greater awareness of the needs of these unsupported seniors. Says Dr. Carney, "There is potentially no structure to address this population, as this population is hidden right before us. Our goal is to highlight that this is a vulnerable population that is likely to increase, and we need to determine what community, social services, emergency response and educational resources can help."

People who are likely to be elder orphans are strongly advised to plan far ahead for future care needs. Though none of us like to think about the possibility of future physical and cognitive decline, these boomers should consider these questions:

  • Are my financial affairs in order? Have I saved enough to pay for care if I need it?
  • Will my home be a good fit for my needs as I grow older? Is it safe and accessible? Could home modifications make it a better fit? Should I consider a move to a smaller home or a senior living community?
  • Would the area where I now live be a good place to spend my later years? Is it safe, walkable, with the services I will need? If I were to develop mobility challenges, would I still be able to remain active and engaged? 
  • What support services would be available to help me with my personal care needs and taking care of my home? What does my local senior services agency offer? What reputable in-home care agencies are nearby? Should I hire an elder attorney? A geriatric care manager?

Planning ahead makes it more likely that a senior will be able to live longer at home. Some boomers are banding into "villages"—communities in which seniors can age in place while contracting together for services such as home repairs, transportation and in-home care. Home sharing is another option, with seniors living together or perhaps providing housing for students in exchange for care assistance. There are many options—but with 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 each day, the time to plan on the individual, community and national levels is now!

Read more about the North Shore-LIJ Health System study here. See an AARP infographic about the upcoming "care gap" here.

When no family members live nearby, a senior's neighbors are often first to notice their changing needs. Read the next article, “Home Care Supports Our Senior Neighbors,” to learn more.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.