Single and Older: Who Will Take Care of Me? | Extra Mile

Denise Brown is a healthy 53-year-old who also happens to be the founder of the website caregiver.com. Divorced and without kids, she has decided that by the time she is 70, she will move into a Chicago retirement community that offers continuing care, should she need the help.

Brown wants to be able to enjoy her relationships with her nieces, nephews, two sisters and two brothers without burdening them as she gets older and needs help. “My parents and their aging experience has really defined what I want for myself—or rather, don’t want,” she says.

Her mother, 82, and father, 85, live in a condo that offers no services. For a short time, they had lived in a continuing care retirement community. Although her father liked the services and the people there, her mother wasn’t happy and insisted they leave. In Brown’s view, they’re in denial about their health. (Between them, they’ve had cancer surgery, a stroke, internal bleeding, sepsis and multiple hospitalizations.)

“You have to accept the reality of your situation. My parents have not been sensitive to the family and how they are impacting us in difficult ways. I am not doing that,” she says.

When you are single—divorced, never married or widowed—and without a significant other, aging can be particularly challenging. Add no kids, or kids who live far away or are otherwise indisposed, and you are pretty much by yourself.

A lot of folks are in this singleton boat:

  • The number of adults ages 45-54 who never married grew 300% between 1986 and 2009.
  • The divorce rate for those 50+ doubled between 1990 and 2010.
  • Boomers are the generation most likely to be divorced.
  • One in three boomers is single.
  • Single boomers tend to live alone.

“The rise in unmarried baby boomers raises questions about who will care for them as they age,” says Susan Brown, chair and professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University and co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research. “Traditionally, spouses have been the first line of defense, but now more and more older adults don’t have a spouse at the ready.”

According to a study by Brown and her colleague I-Fen Lin, unmarried baby boomers face greater health, social and economic consequences than their counterparts who have tied the knot—and kept it tied. For example, they are twice as likely to have a disability than those who are married; according to Brown’s research, 19% of those who are unmarried receive some sort of public assistance (compared to just 6% of those who are married).

Of course, many singletons are healthy, have a strong support system and are fiscally fit. They‘re doing just fine on their own. New York University sociology professor Eric Klinenberg interviewed singles for his book Going Solo. He found that many of those living alone love it: rather than feel lonely, they feel engaged in interests, friendships, and the world. Being single and unattached may work well for many in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond.

But, alas, we will not stay those ages forever. As we grow older, friends may move away or become sick. Or, we may be the ones who can’t take care of ourselves.

Preparing for the Future

Even adults in great physical, mental and financial shape need to think ahead. (That goes for couples, too.) Here are some areas to consider:

1. Where do you see yourself?

Where do you want to be in 5-10 years? Think about this question in terms of housing, social connections, finances, and caregiving. Do you want to stay in your house or community? Would you consider a cohousing community with built-in support?

What do you want to be doing? Take some time to think about how you can maintain a fulfilling life. Do you see yourself in another field, in a paid or voluntary position? Can you take a night course or online course, or join an interest group? Start your research now to determine how you want to fill your days.

Lee Chase of Glastonbury, Connecticut has owned an aerobics studio, worked as a realtor and is currently an office manager. Divorced and without kids, she is tired of the cold and wants to move in the next few years, perhaps to North or South Carolina or Tennessee.

“I had no children by choice,” Chase explains. “I remember a colleague asking me who would take care of me in later life. I felt that to have children to hope they would take care of me was not a good reason. It still was the right decision. But I am alone now and it is scary.”

Now, the 63-year-old nationally ranked racewalker is talking to friends, and recently to classmates at her high school reunion, to get their input on her plans.

2. How can you nourish your support system?

Rather than avoid it, ask yourself that uncomfortable question: When I get older, who will be there to help me if I get sick or become disabled? It doesn’t have to be your family, but find people who you can call during times distress (and fun).

If you don’t have close friends, identify the kinds of people you want to be around. Find or reclaim a hobby, join a committee or support a social cause in order to identify like-minded people with whom you can create a support system. Meetups are one way to gather a group together. You can join an existing group or start a new one.

Some organizations, such as The Transition Network (TTN), a national, non-profit organization for women age 50+, provide opportunities to interact socially, intellectually and civically.  For example, New York City TTN members who are part of the Caring Collaborative program help one another get to medical appointments, provide support to other members when they return home from the hospital, or keep them company when they are not well (but they don’t act as professional caregivers).

3. Are there professionals that can help?

To figure out next steps, you need to know what you can and can’t afford. Does it make sense to speak with a financial advisor? What about looking into long-term care insurance? While you’re investigating these things, do you have all your documents in order (a living will, also known as a healthcare or medical directive; a power of attorney for your healthcare; a power of attorney for your finances; a HIPAA release; and a will)?

Talk to your family and friends about their role in your life, should you become cognitively impaired or physically incapacitated, or be placed in a life-or-death situation. They need to know what you want—and where the supporting documents are.

Just because you are single and without children doesn’t mean that later life has to be difficult. But, preparing for old age is key. Take steps now to plan for a fulfilling future.

Keep Reading: Not Your Grandma’s Housing Choices

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