It may not be something to which anyone aspires, but it is a very real and growing concern: Elder orphans. An elder orphan is defined as “aged, community-dwelling individuals who are socially and/or physically isolated, without an available known family member or designated surrogate or caregiver”. This can refer to older adults who have no children, or who are estranged from their children or those who have little to no support system to help them in their care and decision making process as they age. Currently, it is estimated that 22% of people over the age of 65 already fit this definition.
Let me introduce you to three individuals that I know who sit on the edges of this definition of Elder Orphan.
Johanna moved to warmer climes from her Midwestern roots upon retirement. In the subsequent decade, she became estranged from her one child. Now as a single woman in her late 70s she feels isolated in her neighborhood and community. Her friends that have remained in touch over the course of 50 years have been the ones to travel from “up north” to help care for her during recovery following three surgeries in the past several years. These friends are also aging and are hesitant to be the only care givers if she would need another surgery or period of intense recovery. She is a member of the local UCC church, but even when requested, not even the pastor has been to visit or ask if she needs support. She feels very much alone in the world.
John, 79, is a gay man who sees his nephews about once a year. A retired UCC pastor who has kept his sexual orientation secret, he made arrangements when in his late 50’s to ask a good friend to be his medical power of attorney. His communication with his family was less direct and only after he had been in the ICU for three weeks did they begin to ask who was paying his bills or checking on his home. Further investigation revealed that the nephews had been designated the durable power of attorney. They were able to work from across multiple states with the Medical Power of Attorney Friend to make necessary decisions. Arrangements had to be made for John’s direct care following his hospitalization which including moving him to a care community. The down-sizing of his home and actual move had to be coordinated by his out-of-state nephews.
Delilia, 74, never married and lives on her own. The few people who know her would use the word “recluse” to describe this shy woman who is content to be by herself. It was the postman who noticed the mail piling up and called the sheriff. Checking on the situation, the sheriff discovered her on the floor of her home, unable to walk and experiencing other physical symptoms that quickly led her to the hospital and a diagnosis of a brain tumor. Although a life-long member of a UCC church, she hadn’t participated since she was a teen-ager. It was at this point of needing care that the church rallied around this elusive member to assist with driving to follow-up appointments and with the care of her home.
I am sure that you can identify similar individuals who fit into the definition of elder orphan. All three of these have insurance. All three have some means of retirement income or social security funding. But there are many more who have even less support.
The few programs that we do have in place to support those who are aging in the U.S. are currently being threatened as state and federal budgets reduce the financial resources to Medicare, Medicaid and through such programs as the HUD 202 program for low-income seniors. All of this at time when the number of people who are reaching their 7th, 8th and 9th decades are increasing while at the same time these individuals have fewer family to provide the support that is needed.
How can the church more fully understand and live out our understanding that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ? Are there systems that would connect members with each other so that no one is isolated or “orphaned”? In the letter to James (1:27), we are admonished “to care for orphans and widows in their distress….”. I doubt that James would have ever imagined that the widow might also be the orphan all at once!
Some solutions might include offering programs to help families have the hard conversations before the emergencies arise, expanding our understanding of “family” or more intentionally providing education on how to legally identify who our surrogate family members are. In series of articles begun in 2016, Carol Marak talks about her own plan of action. Perhaps your church could help those like Carol, to think through and plan for their future needs.
- Naming medical and durable powers of attorney and letting blood relatives and surrogate family members know your wishes.
- Making changes in our homes that will support our aging.
- Researching future living options and talking about the markers that will help you to know when changes needs to be made long before these decisions are necessary.
When one member of the body suffers, we all suffer. Let us not overlook the elder orphans who are in our midst. Ask the questions of the members of your family about the steps they have made to be sure that their desires are honored and can be legally carried out. Identify who the members of your family of choice are and share your desires and wishes with those who will most likely be the ones to help make decisions and care for you. These kinds of conversations and programs may not have been what James had in mind, but they are very relevant for churches in the 21st century.
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Executive Director, Ruth Parker Center for Abundant Aging at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.