What's an "Elder Orphan," "Solo Ager," or "Solo"?

What's an "Elder Orphan," "Solo Ager," or "Solo"?
| by Nancy Ruffner

The term Elder Orphan refers to a growing demographic within our aging population. Rising in number, this fast-growing segment is garnering the attention of the nation. A working definition of this growing population is:

“Elder Orphans or Solos are individuals who, by choice or circumstances, function

without the support system traditionally provided by family.”

The most common notion or idea has been that Elder Orphans are older adults who may have never married or are without children. It’s essential to recognize that they may not have traditional, built-in family caregivers to assist them as they age.

It’s actually a much broader discussion. Read on.

The term “Elder Orphan” was first coined by Dr. Maria Carney, Chief of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine at Northwell Health of Great Neck, NY. and a leading researcher. A now-famous phrase about this group is:

“More than 1 in 5 Americans older than 65 are – or are at risk- of becoming – elder orphans.”

AARP picked up this phrase. Then the Visiting Angels. The media has followed their lead adopting and publishing the phrase to the point that where it considered a sort of a standard or a given.

The subject of “Elder Orphans, Solo Agers and Solos” is beginning to surface in the media or professional circles. It’s becoming water cooler talk. We even have “thought leaders” who have helped to usher us into the limelight (thank you Carol Marak and Sara Zeff Geber). It’s a good thing, too, because we Elder Orphans will have unique situations as we age and thus the need for customized planning.

Those of you who know me will often hear me comment as to the importance of language relative to culture, the labeling of social segments of society and indeed of our aging population. Our words can help, harm or hinder. Here is where I stand on the term “Elder Orphan.”

To me, the term “Elder Orphan” is a useful and partially defining term. It gets our attention and maybe evokes something resembling sympathy (but not the empathy I am going for). People latch on to this term and begin to wonder what it means. It’s great for SEO and all around attention-grabbing. It serves its sensational purpose. Admittedly I exploit that attention-getting label but only to quickly follow that up with the freedom to select “Elder Orphan,” “Solo Ager,” “Solo,” or another moniker of your choice. (I am going to stop with all these quotation marks, okay? It’s distracting, and becoming labor-intensive).

Solo Seniors is also a good morph if you are of senior age. To me, it doesn’t stop the conversation or disrupt the pattern as much as the sensational Elder Orphan does. Still, many do find and settle upon the term Solo as more friendly if one has to labeled, saddled with or gets to select one.

There are more unappealing labels to be found in our society. The most appalling label I’ve seen (and yes, it is a label) that is placed put on this population may be the “Unbefriended”, a term affixed by our very own Gerontological Society of America. (Gee, thanks).

— If you are in the legal arena and Solo, you may be designated as “Unrepresented”.

— If you find yourself alone in the ER or a medical situation, you could be “Unattended”.

Folks don’t know what to call us (so let’s seize the opportunity to shape that). Boy, if I ever have the chance to coin a term and make it the trendy term of choice, I will ensure they are more favorable terms than what we’ve been carrying.

That now-common phrase “More than 1 in 5 Americans older than 65 are – or are at risk- of becoming – elder orphans” seems to really bother me every time I read it. I believe it to be that language-thing at work again. The “at risk” is what truly bugs me.

The risk to me is not of becoming an Elder Orphan, in my opinion. I live within that demographic and I’m not risking anything by being here. To me, the risk comes in understanding that I may not have traditional support, and so it will be on me to build my Circle of Care, my Team. The risk may be in knowing about a challenge and not doing anything to plan for or accommodate it. Proper planning is my responsibility to myself, and I might add my responsibility to others.

Nope, this doesn’t feel like a risk. It feels more like an opportunity, and it seems to be knocking.

An attorney friend of mine was teaching about planning and I heard a phrase that I will forever carry with me. As soon as she said it the tumblers seemed to fall into place. The light bulb came on.

“We can all have a say in how things will go and where we’ll end up.”

Yep, I thought, we can! We Solos, mainly because we will be intentional. We will be sizing up our situations and assembling our Teams. And we get to choose our family.

Social data and commentary have made us aware of societal change that will influence our aging. Since the 1960s, folks are having fewer children, so it makes sense that there will be fewer caregivers available overall when our time of need arrives. Logic would have us follow then that Solos especially may need to rely upon them more (more so or perhaps longer). We may find ourselves in competition for the caregivers that will be available, so we’d better wise up.

I work as an independent Patient Advocate and I frequently encounter folks without plans or Teams or Circles of Care and people without any support systems in place. I own an Advocacy and Care Management agency that helps people to (a mantra) “HAVE THE CONVERSATION”, identify and Assemble the Team and prepare for successful aging.

As a Solo, I have some skin in the game. I’m keenly aware of folks who share my demographic. If anyone needs to plan and plan well, it will be us. And as a Patient Advocate, I understand an aging person, the client need. I can assess the situation, determine the needs, connect to resources, and build a Team. I do it personally and professionally all day, every day.

Another part of my professional advocacy involves outreach, connecting with folks within a demographic who have specific needs or paths, a target audience if you will. We Elder Orphans, Solo Agers and Solos need to find each other and we need to be found. We should likely give some serious thought as to how we can become more visible.

I can tell you that a Professional Organization, APHA (the Alliance of Professional Patient Advocates), is all over this. Among us, there has been national discussion in the form of our monthly Call-Ins. We’ve dedicated time and attention to Elder Orphans (or Solo Agers, or Solos, take your pick) to discuss recognizing the need and best practices to serve. The inaugural call featured Linda Camp, researcher-author-speaker of the A Back-Up Plan white paper, myself as Patient Advocate (personal-professional), and was facilitated by author and APHA Director Trisha Torrey. Patient Advocates across the US were able to share ideas for serving as an individual Advocate or as agency. We began to grasp what our efforts could produce nationally and how we could move the needle to help this demographic.

The EO-Solo demographic has specific needs that many are beginning to recognize. In far too many instances, the need manifests as an acute situation, like a trip to the ER and we have no one to speak for us, or we realize we may need help upon our return home. Stuff like this had never occurred to us. It’s Yikes-time.

It’s personal for me. I am a Solo. I feel the vulnerability and I can recognize where my back door may be open. As someone who builds teams for a living, I can get that done. As a professional, I see this knocking on my door.

I lecture and speak in presentations about this frequently. In my most recent presentation called “Solo and Savvy: Responding to the Challenges of Aging Alone,” we assess ways in which our own back doors might be open and begin to envision a solution.

In two weeks, I have the opportunity to address the NC State Bar’s Elder Law and Special Needs attorneys at their annual Symposium. I can assure you that they will leave with a better understanding of us: our definition, challenges, statistics, and how they can (and should) reach out to us. I intend to be memorable to all the Elder Law attorneys in NC as I present our case, if you will, with a strong Call To Action. (Actually, my intent is to blow their hair back, but with dignity).

For me, it’s outreach. Bang the Drum. Write. Talk, speak, provoke and evoke, and “HAVE THE CONVERSATION”. We must share what we know how to do. Lock elbows and walk arm-in-arm with folks like us and show them a path. Call our existence to the fore. Maybe shape language a little, but certainly indicate solution and remedy. And where remedy may not yet exist, we must work to build it.

That’s where this Elder Orphan, er, Solo is.