Updated: Mar 30
What are Elder Orphans?
The term “orphan” typically brings up the image of an abandoned child, sitting on the steps of an orphanage or moving through the foster system. But lately, the term “orphan” has begun to be used in regards to the other far end of the age spectrum.
Elder Orphans are older adults who do not have close family members or connections going into their older age who are of younger and more able capability. The name “Elder Orphan” comes from the reversal of the typical definition of 'orphan, which means a child without parents. An Elder Orphan is an adult without children, though the definition is extended to mean any older adult without strong relationship connections to any of the following:
The rise of Elder Orphans has been noted in numerous studies, journals, and surveys, such as Current Gerontology & Geriatrics Research, which highlight the vulnerability of this growing population. The issue has become even more prominent in the times of COVID-19  as social distancing and reducing social interaction rules and recommendations have limited social interactions for most people. However, for elders, this issue is twice compounded; they are in the vulnerable group for the virus and must be extra vigilant about their health; and unlike the younger generations, the older adults are often not as knowledgeable about technologies which have helped the young stave off some of the consequences of social distancing.
Elder Orphans are a result of numerous factors such as:
the choice to not have children
estrangement from children
death of children
death and/or impairment of spouse/partner
death and/or impairment and/or estrangement of other family members such as younger siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces, grandchildren, and any other family members who traditionally aid older adults in later life
Elder Orphans face numerous issues which affect their lives and health due to their isolation. These include:
loneliness: without a family/close friend network, many older adults must rely on community centers and medical care for social interaction.
transportation: many older adults cannot or do not feel safe to drive due to many factors, such as worsening eyesight. Traditionally, family members would be responsible for transporting these adults. While services exist to help with such transportation, they are not always available, especially in rural areas.
Financial troubles: elder adults cannot rely on another person to support them and must rely only on their social security and savings. This can be difficult for many reasons, such as emergencies wiping away savings.
But perhaps the most pressing issue is the issue of mental degradation. Many older adults are living well into their 90s, which often results in elders who:
cannot get around on their own and require assistance leaving the house, or sometimes even their bed
may have Alzheimer's, Dementia, and other mental degradation conditions which limit their ability to function in the world
this is especially dangerous as without a loving family member or friend, the elder may slip into these conditions without realizing it, and then be in danger of:
poor financial decisions
poor health decisions
There are certain options elders who find themselves in this group can take, but they must be taken early so that they are ready for the above situations:
Have a durable power of attorney:
with whom the elder orphan should share their desires and future plans for their finances and properties and have it notarized and in writing so that, should the elder become mentally incapable of handling their own property, or medically finds themselves unable to do so, the attorney can advocate and manage their estate.
Who can have the ability to help fill out or fill out on behalf of the elder any legal paperwork
who can help draft a will
who can help draft a living will
Have a caretaker that:
should be someone who can act as a general guardian, as opposed to an attorney's financial guardianship
should know where all of the elder's important documents are hidden
should know where the elder keeps their medication
should know what foods and home goods the elder requires so that it can be arranged for those to be delivered if the elder cannot leave the house, such as
can help the elder find programs and transportation such as social events
who can fill out general paperwork that does not require an attorney
who can secure services for the elder such as gardening, cleaning, etc.,
who can advocate in services such as nursing homes for the elder's requests (such as making sure the elder has the type of books they like to read, is comfortable with their fellow elders, enjoys the food and activities, etc.,) independently of the nursing home's staff
who can be reached via phone in case of any issues, such as something as simple as a light bulb going out
Have a medical health care proxy who:
knows where all medical records are kept
knows where medications are kept, which should be taken when, and can administer them in case the elder is unable to do so themselves (such as injections)
can advocate for the elder at hospitals, doctor offices, dentists, and nursing homes in regards to health
knows full medical history including allergies, food intolerances, and other medical issues which may present themselves but may be overlooked by doctors and nurses
knows the elder's end of life plan, such as doctor assisted death and what should be done in case of a coma or unconsciousness, and what the elder's 'living will' contains
can help with all medical related issues such as picking up medications and filling out medical paperwork
Aging alone can be done safely if proper steps are taken to secure your future.
Written: by Aleksandra Bator
Further resources regarding this phenomena and ways in which one might receive help are included below.
1. Carney, M. T., Fujiwara, J., Emmert, B. E., Liberman, T. A., & Paris, B. (2016). Elder Orphans Hiding in Plain Sight: A Growing Vulnerable Population. Current Gerontology & Geratrics Research, 1–11. https://doi-org.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/10.1155/2016/4723250
2. Tyrrell, C. J., & Williams, K. N. (2020). The paradox of social distancing: Implications for older adults in the context of COVID-19. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1), S214–S216. https://doi-org.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/10.1037/tra0000845