The Difficulties That Come With Solo Aging

Solo agers face unique challenges as their needs begin to change



Illustration by Victoria Marcelino

Who can you count on to always be there for you if you need help making decisions and managing your affairs when you’re older?

For those who don’t have children or may be estranged from them, it’s often a question with no easy answer.

The Pew Research Center says currently one in five of the 75 million baby boomers — or 20 percent — do not have children, either by choice or circumstance. That figure is double what it was in the 1970s — and it’s expected to keep rising.

Today’s 15 million “solo agers” are already creating a demographic that is unprecedented in American history.

Even if you’re married or partnered but you don’t have kids and grandkids, you’re now part of this relatively new segment of society creating a novel set of challenges for “elder orphans,” which is another term commonly used to describe those who fit this category.

Moreover, these challenges apply to the culture at large as a large portion of the population rapidly ages.

Although it’s unpleasant and unwelcome, it is a fact of life that you can’t be as sharp or as able at 75 as you are at 55. As your physical, intellectual and emotional capacities diminish, if you’re on your own, how will you be able to make good choices when it comes to financial matters, legal arrangements, relationships, social support systems, housing and healthcare? How will you handle the rest of life’s trials, big and small?

With elder fraud tragically becoming more common and con artists coming up with new scams designed to separate seniors from their hard-earned savings, it’s awfully scary to think that you might end up not just lonely, but poverty stricken too.

Don’t despair. You might be solo, but you’re not alone.

“I would be there,” says Linda Hope of Hope in Hand in Keene. “I would help people categorized as solo agers determine their goals, review their financial statements, set up a budget, pay bills, write out the checks for them to sign or set up online banking for them, help keep them organized, help them discern if a piece of mail or email is a valid bill or a solicitation and those sorts of things.”

Hope is a professional guardian. The former paralegal is educated, well-trained and certified by the National Guardianship Association, which on its website (guardianship.org) lists 15 members in New Hampshire. But what is guardianship?

According to the NGA’s website, guardianship, which is also referred to as conservatorship, is a legal process utilized when a person can no longer make or communicate safe or sound decisions about his/her person and/or property or has become susceptible to fraud or undue influence. Because establishing a guardianship may remove considerable rights from an individual, it should only be considered after alternatives to guardianship have proven ineffective or are unavailable.

If court-ordered guardianship seems a bit drastic, there are other guardrails you can install.

Professionals with the right experience and know-how are at your service and include certified geriatric care managers, certified daily money managers, a fiduciary or an attorney specializing in elder law. A private guardian will likely charge less than an attorney or paralegal.

“Solo agers need to arrange future legal guardianship for themselves — someone who will take over in a fiduciary capacity if they are unable to make decisions for themselves. That person may be a relative or a friend or even a professional fiduciary or private guardian,” writes Sara Zeff Geber, PhD, who is the author of “Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers: A Retirement and Aging Roadmap for Single and Childless Adults” and an expert in this growing field.

“Of course, everyone needs the legal protection of a healthcare directive and an estate plan,” Geber continues, “but solo agers have a heightened need to have those in place while they are still relatively young and healthy since no adult child will be rushing in from the hinterlands to provide that assistance and guidance.”

But where and how do you find qualified people who are trustworthy and right for you?

Experts at AARP tell you not to hand over the keys to your well-being to the first person you consider. Instead, interview several and choose the one with the skills to match your needs and with whom you feel comfortable. Always check references and credentials carefully.

They say that it’s also wise to avoid putting all of your proverbial eggs into one basket. Pick different people for different tasks, because the best one to help manage your piling up and confounding paperwork may not be qualified to help you decide whether to sell your home and move to an assisted living facility. When you divvy up the responsibilities, you’re installing a system of checks and balances, and the importance of that cannot be overstated.

And remember to make sure you know upfront exactly what services each will provide and what the charges will be, then get it all in writing.   

Avoid hiring someone who suddenly seems awfully chummy and overly friendly. Don’t give your hair stylist’s new boyfriend, that guy who is so willing to stop by and help with small repairs, the passwords to your online bank account and investment portfolio.

Hope agrees. “I’ve seen plenty of cases like that, even where a neighbor is the unscrupulous and unethical one, and the single person changes their will and leaves their home to that neighbor. That is a huge asset. It happens,” says Hope. “The first question I’d ask anyone you’re considering is if they have professional liability insurance.”

Hope also recommends attending free seminars on this topic and finding a support group of friends in a similar situation, and she says both are available in New Hampshire. Remember, as a solo ager, you’re the one responsible for taking care of your future self.

“Most people really don’t want to deal with this issue until something happens, whether it’s sudden or a gradual decline, to make them face reality,” says Hope. “Educate yourself sooner than later.”

Tips for Solo Agers

Sociologists say that 20 percent of the country’s 75 million baby boomers never had children, and that’s twice the rate it was in the 1970s. This subset of baby boomers is tagged with the monikers “solo agers” or “elder orphans” and it is creating an entirely new demographic in American society.

Solo agers are mostly highly educated, Caucasian and have deep roots in the US. Their numbers are projected to keep rising. Why are there so many of them now?

Women of this generation are the first to have legal, readily available, easy-to-use contraception and reproductive rights. They are also the first generation to have greater educational opportunities on the undergraduate and graduate levels, and with more education, they gained increased access to work in their chosen fields and professions.

Those factors have afforded women the ability to support themselves and attain financial freedom, while at the same time the taboos on choosing not to marry and/or not to bear children have diminished significantly.

Solo agers, and those boomers who lost a child or have one unable or unwilling to care for a parent, are reinventing retirement. With no adult child to ride in on a white horse and rescue you, here are a few tips on how to manage flying solo:

  1. Avoid isolation, which leads to loneliness and depression.
  2. Create a social support network.
  3. Form new relationships with younger people and keep an open mind to new ideas.
  4. Live near other solo agers, whether in the same unit, the same condominium community or on the same street.
  5. Decide where you want to live next. There may likely come a time when you need to move into an assisted living or memory care facility and you want to be the one to pick the place.
  6. Complete your estate planning, including a living will and a durable power of attorney. Keep all legal documents up to date.
  7. Adopt a pet. Senior pets make wonderful companions for senior people, and they are a great ice-breaker when meeting and making new friends.
  8. Remember to plan for your pet too. Make your wishes known, in your will, for a new forever home for Fido should you no longer be able to care for him properly.

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