There are unprecedented numbers of childless and unmarried individuals among the aging Baby Boomer population, leading researchers to coin the new phrase ‘elder orphans’.  According to U.S. Census data, about one-third of Americans aged 45 to 63 are single, a 50% increase from 1980, and nearly 19% of women aged 40 to 44 have no children, compared to 10% in 1980. The trend is causing concern among geriatricians and palliative care physicians who say that many are at risk of becoming ‘elder orphans’ with little support available to them as they age.  Sadly, many will have no known family member or designated person to act on their behalf.

New research led by Maria Torroella Carney, chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at the North Shore-LIJ Health System, finds that there needs to be a greater awareness of this group.  To give a sense of the scale of the issue, the oldest Baby Boomers turned 65 in 2011; the youngest are projected to require health care through about 2060.  By 2029, all of the baby boomers will be 65 years and over and more than 20 percent of the total U.S. population will be over the age of 65. Carney comments:

“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…There is potentially no structure to address this population as [it] is hidden right before us.”

Carney highlighted that ‘elder orphans’ will be vulnerable to mental health issues and premature death, along with a host of other negative outcomes:

“This is a population that can utilize expensive healthcare resources because they don’t have the ability to access community resources while they’re well but alone.  If we can provide earlier social services and support, we may be able to lower high healthcare costs or prevent the unnecessary use of expensive healthcare. With greater awareness and assessment of this vulnerable population, we can then come up with policies to impact and manage better care for them.” 

Dr. Joyce Varner, professor and director of the Adult-Geron Primacy Care NP track program at the University of South Alabama, says that the decision to remain childless contributes to the problem. Shockingly, based on her own research Varner estimates that about 60% of nursing home residents do not have regular visitors.  At 59, Varner will be an elder orphan herself and comments of the situation:

“My generation was one of the first that elected not to have children… I see a lot of sadness and regret on the part of the elderly people who decided not to have children. A lot of fear. ‘How are we going to get care? Is there going to be anyone with me at the end of life?’” 

By forming close communities and developing connections across the community, it is more likely that elder orphans will be able to reach out for support. There are many volunteer programmes and individuals willing to help if they are aware of the need, making a greater awareness and concern about the issue among the general community crucial to the wellbeing of the growing elderly population.  

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...