The knowledge you’ve gained while caring for your loved one can help you prepare you to age well.
Posted in , Jul 14, 2020
No one understands the challenges of caregiving better than someone who has had first-hand experience. If you have been the family caregiver to a spouse, life partner, sibling or parent, you’re no doubt well acquainted with the multiplicity of roles and the many demands that are required to do the job well. It may be that your loved one has passed away, or will pass before you do, and that this person is your last remaining close family member. If you have no children of your own to care for you as you age, it’s quite likely you have wondered, with no little anxiety, who will care for you as you grow older. This can be an especially daunting prospect when you have intimate knowledge of the time, effort and necessary resources that go into caring for an older adult. But this is where your vast caregiving knowledge can weigh in. It is time to put it to use for yourself.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought home, in a very real way, the serious effects that social isolation can have on our physical and emotional well-being. We were suddenly cut off from friends, co-workers and community interactions that defined the rhythm of our lives and provided daily patterns and connection. Many people who live alone, began to consider who would care for them should they contract the virus.
Concerns over aging alone were already a familiar scenario for many older adults who do not have children (known as “solo agers”) or a spouse or life partner (known as “elder orphans”). In fact, studies show that 22 percent of Americans age 65+ are at risk for becoming “elder orphans,” and will have no immediate family to care for them when they need help (Dr. Maria Carney in Bella DePaulo, Elder Orphans: A Real Problem or a New Way to Scare Singles?, Psychology Today, 10/4/16). Without family members to rely on for assistance and companionship, older adults aging alone are not only isolated, but they are also at an increased risk for cognitive decline, heart disease and earlier death (Jeff Hoyt, Living Without Family, 8/31/18).
If you fall into either of these categories, it’s important to take steps now to begin planning for the future.
The challenges of the solo ager or elder orphan
It can help to first consider the roles that you have assumed as part of your loved one’s care. In addition to the day-to-day duties of caregiving, you may have helped with housing issues, offered emotional and financial support, taken on healthcare and/or financial power of attorney responsibilities, and provided socialization and connectedness simply by being present (Sara Zeff Geber, Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers, 2018.). Not only do solo agers lack these supports, but they also must navigate a world which immediately assumes that adult children are present to help. Rather, older adults aging alone often lack obvious family caregivers and decision-making support, which can make self-care more challenging.
A recent survey showed that solo agers and others aging alone share many of the same concerns about aging that older adults who are more socially connected experience, including fears about losing their housing or having enough money to meet basic needs. Others also struggle with depression and anxiety (Carol Marak, ‘Elder Orphans’ Have a Harder Time Aging in Place, 12/5/17). But many of these challenges can be better met with proper preparation.
How can you prepare for the possibility of aging alone after your caregiving journey ends?
You may be in the position of becoming a solo ager or elder orphan after your loved one passes away. It could be that you are the caregiver for a spouse or a sibling and are on the verge of losing this last remaining family member. Maybe this has already happened. In either case, you may be concerned that you do not have anyone who will take on the role of caregiver for you as you grow older. This is apt to cause fear and anxiety. But you are in an excellent position because all the knowledge you’ve gained as a caregiver—of resources, planning and community support—can help you navigate this situation. By taking the following steps now, you can make inroads to ensure that you are supported as you advance in years:
Create a new infrastructure: Because you can’t rely on a family member for your needs, you may want to look for new ways to connect with your community. Given the current physical distancing restrictions, a virtual community can be a good place to start. Explore the Elder Orphans Facebook Group or check out agingsolo.com.
Form your own calling tree: Establish helping relationships even before you need them. Draw up a list of people you will call when you need help, discuss your expectations with these friends or community members, and decide whose support network you will join in return.
Embrace the planning process: It’s never easy to think about your own aging, much less to plan for it. But as you have probably learned from being a caregiver yourself, the planning process is critically important, because it allows people to retain control over their future care. By relying on guidance from trusted friends and advisors, you can determine who will hold your healthcare and financial powers of attorney, make sure that your legal documents are in order and clearly define your end-of-life preferences. You can also explore the resources in your community for housing, in-home services and transportation, and decide on the best time to access them. Keep in mind that these plans may change over time.
Be creative in deciding who might help to fill the role of caregiver. You might even want to put together your own personal Board of Advisors, made up of people in your community.
You have done so much for your loved one. Now is the time to pay yourself back by planning ahead for a more secure future.