Flying solo: How seniors can confront fears of aging alone
Who will take care of you as you age? Many rely on adult children to help, but what if you have no children? A spouse or partner who remains in good health is a likely candidate, but what if that person becomes disabled or precedes you in death? What if you never married?
Around 28% of Americans over age 65 live alone – some 5 million men and 9.7 million women, according to the Administration for Community Living/Administration on Aging.
Older adults living alone – solo agers – do so for a number of reasons. Perhaps they never married, or married and remained childless, or have been through the death of a spouse or a divorce. There’s a widespread assumption that children are a support safety net and will one day assist their aging parents. When adult children are unable to fulfill this role, their elders may be on their own.
Many older adults, particularly women, firmly assert that their decision not to marry or have children is a choice they’d make all over again. They’ve lived many years with a certain amount of freedom to pursue careers, establish strong professional and social networks, and develop other interests in an independent way.
The early phase of older adulthood, from age 55 to about 70, is a time of continued work for some and new opportunities for others. Because a growing number of seniors are living from 10 to 30 years beyond this phase, aging is a different game than it was for earlier generations. The chances of needing some type of assistance in this later stage of life increase with each passing year.
Since you really have no idea how long you’ll live or what type of assistance you’ll need, planning ahead requires guesswork.
As Dr. Harry R. Moody, author of Gerontology: The Basics puts it, “Don’t say you’re not a solo ager. The truth is, we’re all solo agers if we live long enough.”
The good news is, with a little research and openness to possibilities, there are ways to manage the third act of your story.
Whether you’re alone by choice or by life circumstances, aging solo is a prospect that deserves serious consideration.
Start planning for solo aging now
Do you know anyone receiving caregiving from their adult child? Are you that adult child caring for your own parent? Think about what a caregiver does for an older adult. If you are a solo ager, you must start thinking about how you’ll do those things for yourself.
Or, with outside assistance.
It’s helpful to have a positive attitude about aging, no matter your circumstances. But it’s easy to say “be positive” and often tricky to maintain a cheery outlook. The story of your older years is yours to write, and if you think of the opportunities that lie ahead, you’ll be surprised at what’s possible.
Change is certain and there will be challenges. Planning will be easier if you aren’t consumed by fear about what’s ahead.
If you haven’t already, you need to start planning now.
There are some good publications available to help you with the process. One particularly well-written book is Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers: A Retirement and Aging Roadmap for Single and Childless Adults by Sara Zeff Geber, Ph.D. It’s available through the King County Library System and Seattle Public Library.
Really examining your values and what’s essential to your well-being is one of Geber’s key concepts. Identifying what’s important to you now helps you think about the decisions that shape your later years.
What are your priorities? What rises to the top of your list? It could be living in a safe place, being creative, enjoying time outdoors, having companionship, or pursuing new interests.
Start with the basics – your health, your finances, your social network, and your housing. Documenting your preferences is also an important part of your basic plan – your will, your advance directive, and your long-term care wishes.
Take stock of your health
Good health and a reasonable level of fitness and mobility make solo aging easier, and it’s never too late to start. Ken Druck, author of Courageous Aging, suggests you decide to change the way you take care of yourself and define your end goal.
Preventive health care is crucial – stay current with vaccines, dental care, vision exams, and regular checkups.
Tend to your spiritual and mental health. Find ways to reduce stress, including getting enough sleep. If you’re affiliated with a religious organization, stay in touch with other members of your church.
Start moving. Regular exercise in the form of something you enjoy is good for your heart and your psyche. Incorporating some level of physical fitness into your life could impact your ability to stay independent longer.
Find recent articles on all aspects of senior health and wellness on the SeaCare website. At SeaCare we’re all about fostering your well-being.
Review your finances
If you don’t know how long you’ll live or be able to take care of yourself, how can you determine how much money you’ll need? You’ll need to consider your net worth, current sources of income, assets, and how much you spend.
Think about what having enough money looks like for you. How do you save and spend? Are there changes you can make to your current situation that will improve your financial outlook?
Working with a financial planner is your best bet for reliable information. Check out the Financial Planning Association (FBA) website (fpanet.org) to find a planner in your area. Pull-down menus on the site allow you to customize your search based on your income and needs. When you speak to a planner, it’s important to summarize your circumstances – let them know you don’t have children or local family – so they can recommend safety nets and options for you.
The Seattle Public Library Foundation has produced a webinar, “The Power of Planning: Taking Control of Your Own Aging Journey,” featuring a certified care manager and elder law attorney.
You may want to consider Long-term Care Insurance (LTCI) which, although expensive, can provide the coverage you need for help with activities of daily living (ADLs). It’s wise to buy an LTCI policy early because the longer you wait, the pricier it gets.
Until recently, Medicare did not cover non-medical long-term care but that’s changing for some Medicare Advantage plans. Check your policy to determine how much coverage you have. Be aware, however, that Medicare Advantage can help but you may need additional long-term care insurance protection.
Think about your social network
Who are your closest relationships? Friends from work? Community groups? Neighbors? Nieces and nephews?
These people are more than nice companions – some will become mainstays of support as you age. It’s important to foster these connections. Think of social capital – the meaningful and beneficial exchanges with the people closest to you – as something to invest in to maintain your quality of life. It’s every bit as important as your financial assets.
Maybe more so.
Take time to ask yourself questions like these as you think about your relationships:
- Who shares my values?
- Whose company do I enjoy?
- Who do I feel I have a mutually beneficial relationship with?
- Who can I call for help if I have an emergency?
Strategic investor Dr. Pamela Jolly touts the wisdom and comfort of having a particular friend or family member who knows all about you. This is “your person.” Your person has information about your will, your advance care directive, and your wishes for long-term care. They’re someone you’ve had plenty of conversations with about your life, your values, and who you really are.
If you need some help building a community of friends, consider meetup.com. In the Seattle-Bellevue area, there are dozens of groups that currently meet online (and some in-person) for book discussions, hobbies & crafts, health & wellness topics, and more. Hint: set a close-in distance filter to make sure you’re joining groups close to home.
If you are interested in making a difference, check out volunteermatch.org for local opportunities to connect with others who share your values. Devoting time to a cause you believe in is not only a way to establish relationships, it’s a boost to your emotional and intellectual well-being.
Make an effort to initiate relationships by extending yourself. Start a conversation with your neighbors or someone like you who’s attending an event on their own. Look at meeting new people as a privilege, a way of choosing a family for yourself. Step out of your comfort zone and connect with people of other generations, like children of friends or younger co-workers.
Where do you want to live?
After you’ve taken stock of your health, your finances, and your social network, you’ll have more clarity as you determine the likelihood of remaining in your current home. More than 75% of adults over the age of 50 want to remain in their current home, according to a 2018 survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Less than 60% anticipate they’ll actually be able to.
Read our recent post about aging in place. Think about the home you live in now – can you afford to continue living there for several more years? Are you dependent on a car to reach the people and services you need? Does your home need modifications such as grab bars, ramps, and improved lighting?
Could you accommodate a home share arrangement? Home sharing is growing in popularity as a solution to two big concerns of solo agers – finances and companionship. You might discover that some minor modifications to your home would provide a good shareable space for a young professional, a college student, or another solo ager.
If you want to continue living in your current community, consider joining a “village.” Villages are organizations that connect people living in a particular area, usually within a single zip code. You’ll pay a reasonable membership fee that covers a concierge-type service to link members with help they need for transportation, house cleaning, meals, etc.
The village concept is there to help older adults manage on their own, provide opportunities for socializing, and facilitate community involvement. Villages are designated as nonprofit organizations. The Eastside Neighbors Network covers the Bellevue area, and there are four villages throughout the greater Seattle area. Learn more HERE.
If you’re aging at home, SeaCare is ready to help you with in-home care at a level that suits your particular need for assistance.
If you’re in the market to move to a new community check out AARP’s livability index, which considers factors like housing affordability, safe transportation, and healthcare, among others.
Put your affairs in order: essential documents
It’s an act of self-love, and love for those friends and family you cherish, to document your wishes for end-of-life care and your estate. What a perfect opportunity to have conversations with those closest to you – to share information that is often avoided because it can be uncomfortable, but that will ultimately provide assuredness that you and your circle will all be in the know.
The most important of these are:
An advance directive (AD). It’s also called an advance health care directive or durable power of attorney for health care. This used to be called a living will. It’s a legally binding statement of your wishes for care, should you become disabled and unable to voice your preferences. The person you name as your agent is obligated to carry out your instructions, which were documented before you became disabled.
A durable power of attorney (POA) for your finances. This allows your designated agent to make financial decisions on your behalf.
A last will and testament. This outlines instructions for disposing of your property after your death.
SeaCare will publish information on the substance and how-to of this documentation in a future article.
Whether you’re planning as a solo ager or as a caregiver, SeaCare In-Home Care Services wants to help you understand your options. Consider us part of your social network — a trusted and reliable source of support.
Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.
If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339.