Teresa McUsic

Finding resources to help ‘elder orphans’ avoid isolation

Meals on Wheels is one community resource available to help senior citizens who live alone.
Meals on Wheels is one community resource available to help senior citizens who live alone. Star-Telegram

Aging in place has been the trend for a while now among seniors, but increasingly they are living all alone.

“Elder orphans” is how these single seniors — age 65 or more without children, spouses or designated surrogates to act on their behalf — were described in a case study by a New York gerontologist.

This population is growing, said Don Smith, director of the Area Agency on Aging of Tarrant County.

“The good news is we’re extending life with medical technology and there are a lot more people living in their homes independently,” he said. “The bad news is that has created a lot of elder orphans.”

In Fort Worth, seniors living alone at home make up 29 percent of Fort Worth’s senior population, or roughly 17,000 people, according to census data. More than 70 percent are women.

Nationally, census numbers show more elder orphans are on the horizon: About one-third of Americans 45 to 63 are single, a 50 percent increase from 1980. And almost 19 percent of women 40 to 44 have no children, compared to 10 percent in 1980.

In addition to dealing with isolation, this group is more vulnerable to a wide range of health issues, including functional decline and mental health problems.

“It’s the loneliness that’s the issue,” Smith said. “There is a growing body of research that says living alone has a negative impact on the immune system and increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

A recent count of area seniors at home by the Area Agency on Aging identified 837 people living alone who are exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia, Smith said.

“It’s a growing issue, and we’re extremely concerned about it and the significant implications for the community,” he said.

Fortunately, there are resources out there to help these isolated seniors.

“We are trying to encourage people to go to a senior center or use Meals on Wheels to have a live person knock on their door five days a week,” Smith said.

There are 26 senior centers in Tarrant County, said Jerry Mosman, executive director of Senior Citizen Services of Tarrant County. The centers provide free transportation, serve meals five days a week for a recommended donation of $2 a meal and organize activities from exercise classes and outings to parties and card games.

“We are fighting senior isolation,” he said. “Our goals are nutrition and socialization.”

But serving roughly 5,000 seniors in Tarrant County is just scratching the surface of the population, Mosman said. Faith-based organizations also are stepping up their senior programs, he added.

Technology also is helping elder orphans connect with their communities.

For example, Carol Marak, based in Waco, helps run a Facebook page for elder orphans and is an editor for SeniorCare.com, an online guide that lists senior statistics and resources for 8,000 U.S. cities.

“The idea for the guide and the Facebook page is to get people to plan ahead,” she said. “We have all of this information and data. Consumers can evaluate whether a city meets their needs.”

With 29 percent of its seniors living alone, Fort Worth falls into the median range of elder orphans, Marak said. Flower Mound, for example, has one of the lowest percentage of seniors alone at 18 percent, while places like Bal Harbour, Fla., are as high as 38 percent of the population.

The guide also shows that many seniors have financial problems. Twenty-eight percent of Fort Worth seniors live on less than $20,000 a year, and 21 percent received food stamps in the past year.

Just 3 percent of the Fort Worth senior population live in some type of institutional care, according to census data.

“Not many people can afford to live that way,” Marak said. “It’s very costly. That’s why they have to live at home.”

One possible solution is a new take on the Airbnb concept through websites like SilverNest.com and GoldenGirlsNetwork.com. Both link homeowners with potential housemates to offset the cost of living at home alone.

SilverNest has grown dramatically since its launch last October to 4,000 homeowners and housemates in 48 states, said Wendi Burkhardt, CEO and co-founder of the online service.

“A number of our clients are house rich but cash poor,” Burkhardt said. “We wanted to address the isolation and financial stress in an aging demographic by providing all the tools to create a successful living situation.”

So begin your planning now, before you find yourself home alone.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net

Places for senior help

  • Call 211. United Way’s hotline has specialists available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its database, also available online at www.TarrantCounty211.org, lists 1,010 local nonprofit and government programs.
  • Senior Citizens Services of Tarrant County. 817-413-4949 or www.scstc.org. Provides meals, exercise classes and other events and transportation to 26 senior centers in Tarrant County.
  • Meals on Wheels. 817-336-0912 or www.mealsonwheels.org. Provides meals at home, case managers and other services to seniors.
  • Aging Disability Resource Center of Tarrant County. 888-730-2372 or www.TarrantCountyADRC.org. Connects elderly, disabled, families and caregivers with support services.
  • SilverNest.com and GoldenGirlsNetwork.com. Free online services that link homeowners with potential housemates.
  • Elder Orphans Facebook page. Provides group support for seniors living alone.
  • SeniorCare.com. Resource guide of services and living options for seniors in 8,000 U.S. cities.