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Lack of children, family may cause rise in 'elder orphans'

Nearly one-quarter of Americans older than 65 are currently or at are risk to be "elder orphans," a number that is expected to grow as the massive Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement age.

By Stephen Feller
Lack of children, family may cause rise in 'elder orphans'
Nearly a quarter of all seniors in the U.S. are in danger of becoming "elder orphans" because they don't have children or spouses and are too far from family to make a difference in their everyday lives. That percentage is expected to continue to grow as Baby Boomers reach retirement age. Photo by Fotoluminate LLC/Shutterstock

GREAT NECK, N.Y., May 15 (UPI) -- Longtime concerns about providing adequate health care to the aging U.S. population are being bolstered by a growing number of seniors at risk to become "elder orphans" that may never get the care they need.

Nearly one-quarter of Americans older than 65 are currently or are at risk to be "elder orphans," a number that is expected to grow as the massive Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement age, according to researchers who say that methods to advocate for these people need to be established now before it becomes a bigger problem.

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"We have a sense that this will be a growing population as society ages and life expectancy increases, and our government and society need to prepare how to advocate for this population," said Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at the North Shore-LIJ Health System, in a press release.

"Our goal is to highlight that this is a vulnerable population that's likely to increase, and we need to determine what community, social services, emergency response and educational resources can help them."

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Researchers offered the example of "HB," a 76-year-old who lives alone in Manhasset, N.Y. HB's family lives in California, and his long-term pain, delirium, reduced ability to make decisions and lack of social support led to a failed suicide attempt. He was discharged to a nursing facility for care because he needed help and had no family to assist him.

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"This is a population that can utilize expensive healthcare resources because they don't have the ability to access community resources while they're well but alone," Carney said. "If we can provide earlier social services and support, we may be able to lower high healthcare costs or prevent the unnecessary use of expensive healthcare."

Analysts recently pointed to one possible solution being an increase in age-friendly communities that cater to people older than 65 who fall into one of the categories that can lead to becoming an elder orphan.

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A series of papers published by the Public Policy and Aging Report said that communities designed for seniors to live independently, while maintaining safety, maintaining an active social life and having access to advocates for services, if not the services themselves, would help seniors to achieve a higher quality of life.

About one-third of Americans aged 45 to 63 are single, almost 20 percent of women aged 40 to 44 have no children, and 22 percent of people over age 65 are at risk of becoming elder orphans, Carney said. These groups are all at risk of being caught in situations where loss of physical or mental functions can put their lives in danger.

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"With greater awareness and assessment of this vulnerable population, we can then come up with policies to impact and manage better care for them," she said.

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The research will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Geriatrics Society on May 15.

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