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Lynne Ingersoll and her cat, Jesse, spent a quiet Thanksgiving day together in her little bungalow in Blue Island, Illinois.
A retired librarian, Ms. Ingersoll never married or had children. At 77, she is outlived by her parents, three partners, her two closest friends, five dogs and eight cats.
When her sister died three years ago, Ms Ingersoll joined the ranks of older Americans considered “unrelated”: without a partner or spouse, without children or siblings. Covid-19 has also largely suspended her casual get-togethers with friends. Now, she says, “my social life is made up of doctors and store clerks – it’s a joke, but it’s pretty much true.”
Like many older people, Ms. Ingersoll faces a host of health issues: kidney disease, asthma, heart disease requiring a pacemaker, arthritis that makes it difficult to walk even with a cane. She’s managing, but “I can see a time when that won’t be true,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do about it.”
An estimated 6.6% of American adults age 55 and older do not have a living spouse or biological children, according to a 2017 study published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. (Researchers often use this definition of unrelated because spouses and children are the most suitable relatives to serve as family caregivers.)
About 1% fit a narrower definition – no spouse or partner, children and biological siblings. This figure rises to 3% among women over the age of 75.
These aren’t high proportions, but they represent a lot of people without relatives: nearly a million older Americans without a spouse or partner, children or siblings in 2019, including about 370,000 women over the age of 75.
“We assume everyone has at least one family, but that’s no longer the case,” said Rachel Margolis, a sociologist at the University of Western Ontario and co-author of the study.
Several demographic factors have favored an increase in unrelatedness. Baby boomers have lower marriage rates and higher divorce rates than their parents, and more have been left childless. The rise of so-called gray divorce, after age 50, also means fewer older married people, and longer lifespans may mean more years without a surviving family.
“All paths to celibacy have developed,” said Boston University sociologist and researcher Dr. Deborah Carr.
Among older couples, cohabitation has increased as an alternative to marriage, but these older people are less likely than married couples to receive care from their partner. Those in committed relationships who do not live with their partner are even less likely.
Additionally, black, female, and less affluent seniors have particularly high rates of unrelatedness.
The growing number of unrelated seniors, who sometimes refer to themselves as “elderly orphans” or “lonely seniors,” worries researchers and advocates because this group faces many disadvantages.
A study of middle-aged and older adults in Canada found that those who did not have a partner or children (this study did not include data on siblings) had levels of mental health lower self-reported and physical and higher levels of loneliness. They were less likely to participate in activities such as sports, cultural or religious groups or service clubs – a predictor of later cognitive impairment.
Parentless Americans are dying earlier. Dr. Margolis and his co-authors, using data from the Health and Retirement Study, found that a decade after the first interviews with respondents, more than 80% of older adults with partners and children had survived, compared to only about 60% of those who had not. That is.
At the end of life, researchers at Mount Sinai in New York reported, those without partners and without children received fewer hours of care each week and were more likely to have died in nursing homes.
“Getting old is tough at the best of times, and even more so if you go it alone or with weak social ties,” Dr. Carr said.
On the other hand, meet Joan DelFattore, 76, a retired English professor at the University of Delaware. Like some solo seniors, “I felt from an early age that I just didn’t see myself as a wife and mother,” she said.
Preferring to live alone, “I built a single life for myself,” she says.
Dr. DelFattore, who is in good health, continues to write and research, and she teaches a graduate course every other fall. She stays in near-daily contact with a group of friends, walks several times a week with one of them, and stays close to cousins in New Jersey, with whom she spent Thanksgiving. She plays an active role in several local organizations.
And she doesn’t like “the cultural perception that older people without immediate family means you’re in need, that you don’t have support.”
Sociologists call this strategy “substitution”: turning to friends and neighbors for the ties and sustenance that families have traditionally provided.
In Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, for example, Celeste Seeman, who is divorced and childless and has lived alone for 25 years, has befriended neighbors in her apartment building. During recent surgery, Ms Seeman, 65 and still working as an embroidery machine operator, walked the neighbour’s Chihuahuas, did her laundry and called her almost every day for weeks.
“I hope what is happening will happen,” Ms Seeman said. Because she outlived her family, having cared for her parents until their death, there are no relatives left to provide similar help should she need it herself.
“I’m scared about it,” she acknowledged, then added, “You can’t dwell on things. It might not happen.
A study of single family survivors, the last members of the families they grew up in, found that, for unclear reasons, they were also disproportionately likely to lack spouses or partners and children, and were therefore doubly vulnerable.
Of course, having family is no guarantee of help as people age. The remoteness, geographic distance and declining health of loved ones may make them unwilling or unable to serve as caregivers.
Yet “our elder care system has worked, for better or worse, on the backs of spouses and, incidentally, adult children,” said Susan Brown, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University and author of the sole study. family survivors.
Relying on surrogates has its limits. About two-thirds of older Americans will eventually encounter a time when the rubber meets the road and will need help with activities of daily living, such as bathing, dressing and using the bathroom.
“Friends and neighbors can help with meals or take a prescription, but they won’t help you in the shower,” Dr. Margolis said.
Dr. DelFattore prepared for this eventuality by purchasing long-term care insurance years ago so she could hire home health aides or afford assisted living. Few Americans have done it or can afford the cost, but most will also be unable to afford adequate care and do not have low enough incomes to qualify for Medicaid.
“Politics tend to lag behind reality,” Dr Carr said. “There was the belief over the past few decades that older people would marry off and have children; this is what the classic American family looked like. This is no longer the case.
In the absence of any large-scale public program, experts suggest a variety of smaller solutions to support unrelated elderly people.
Shared housing and co-housing, offering security and assistance in numbers and in community, could develop, especially with public and philanthropic support. The village movement, which helps seniors age in place, could also grow.
Revised family leave policies and caregiver support programs could include friends and neighbors, or more distant relatives like nieces and nephews.
Regardless of how governments, community organizations and health care systems begin to tackle the problem, there is not much time to waste. Projections indicate that unrelatedness will increase dramatically as the population cohorts behind the baby boom age.
“Young people are less likely to marry and have children, and they have fewer siblings” as family sizes decrease, Dr Brown said. “How are they going to deal with declining health? We don’t have a good answer. I’m not sure people pay attention.
Sound produced by Kate Winslet.
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