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Growing Old Alone: The Elderly Who Are at Risk of Becoming Senior Orphans

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Posted on June 19th, 2017 by Guest Blogger, under Patient Advocacy, Senior Orphans

Article written by Steve Cohen, RN MSN, CRNI, CHt

Senior Orphan

The elderly who outlive their family, or live far from their relatives, are at risk of becoming Senior Orphans.  These people are socially or physically isolated. They lack support to help them manage as they are age. They want to thrive in the place where they  have lived, safe and comfortable, surrounded by comfortable memories; this is a natural desire of  older adults.

Case Study of a Senior Orphan

One previous patient of mine, Mr. Brook, was 81 years old and for the most part, he was alone. He divorced with no children. He had spent many years caring for his mother.  She died after complications from her cancer treatments.  Fourteen months later his bedridden father died.  His brother with Parkinson’s disease died one year later.  Mr. Brook, an educated man, was socially and physically isolated.  He had no available family members or caregivers to help him manage his own process of aging.  He was a Senior Orphan.

Living Alone Statistics

The American Community Survey from 2012 reported one in three Baby Boomers were unmarried. The majority of these unmarried Boomers had either divorced or never married.  Only ten percent widowed. The Institute on Aging noted unmarried Boomers confront greater economic, health, and social liabilities compared to married Boomers who were living outside a nursing home or hospital. In 2010, nearly one-third (11.3 million) lived alone. Older women were two times more likely to live alone than older men. In 2011, the Administration on Aging found that 72 percent of older men  lived with a spouse.  Interesting to compare to only 42 percent of older women lived with a spouse.  Older non-Hispanic white women and black women were more likely than women of other races to live alone. (39 percent each, compared with about 21 percent of older Asian women and 23 percent of older Hispanic  women). The probability of living alone increases with age. In 2010, almost half of the women over 75 years of age lived alone.

Changing Boomer Demographics

According to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, as many as 22.6 percent of the older population nationwide were at risk of aging alone or already is. In Chicago, 27  percent of seniors are widowed, 15 percent are divorced and 14 percent never married. (Source: 2015 U.S. Census Bureau).  An estimated 49 percent of people older than 65 in Chicago who owned a house were  living there alone in 2015.  These numbers will increase into the future. Less people are getting married, couples are having fewer children and parents are living farther away from their children.

Isolated SeniorIsolation and Health Risks

Also take into consideration, loneliness and social isolation can affect a person’s health,  including high blood pressure, heart disease, cognitive decline and for some even death.  Researchers at the University of York identified people with only a few social connections or feeling lonely, had a 29 percent higher risk of heart disease and 32 percent higher risk of  stroke when compared with their peers who were either well connected or at least felt like they were well connected (Valtorta, Kanaan, Gilbody, Ronzi, & Hanratty, 2016).  Adding to these long-term complications, day-to-day life presents challenges for seniors who live alone. Sticking with their treatment plans, filling medications, visiting their doctor — it  can all be overwhelming, especially in addition to their daily events like paying bills and obtaining groceries, which become more difficult each day.

RN Patient Advocate Finds Solution

For Mr. Brook, caring for his family members was a challenging and emotional task. He remembered the onslaught of doctor visits, shopping for the needs of his family and caring for his home; this gave him no time to process the seriousness of their illnesses. The extensive hours spent caring for his family members left him too tired to nurture any other relationships.  Once his brother died, he found himself now secluded away from others.

Mr. Brook was independent. He started to become involved with his church but then he began to suffer from balance problems, which made him aware of his own aging. His Patient Advocate, a Registered Nurse, recommended to initiate one change in his home; it was a safety measure. He believed his rug accented his bedroom. Mr. Brook threw away the favorite rug because it was a trip hazard. His Patient Advocate also taught him the importance of motion sensor night-lights.

RN Patient Advocates For the Client

A Patient Advocate finds solutions for those aging and living alone. Those living alone need to be in areas with affordable housing with a convenient transportation system. They need to maintain their health as well as their wealth. As elderly individuals are approaching the second halves of their lives, the Patient Advocate needs to be proactive with planning for the patient’s later years and assist them with difficult health care decisions.  Registered nurses, influence the need for advocacy as they have an intimate point of view. They have experienced day-to-day instances proving the needs of the Senior Orphan and the consequences of patient morbidity and mortality without adequate support. A Registered Nurse as a Patient Advocate has the ability to guide a Senior Orphan to access applicable and effective care. A Registered Nurse as an Advocate is an excellent resource to access appropriate healthcare services needed.

Trusted Medical Resource

Registered Nurses understand healthcare issues and develop a trusting relationship with their patients and their significant family members and friends. It is vital that they assist this population to make appropriate moves with healthcare decisions so to integrate their experiences and insights into the lives of the Senior Orphan.

Advocates for the Client

Registered Nurses acting as a Healthcare provider and an Advocate recognize an individual’s needs and find ways to have those needs met. They are able to observe first-hand the positives and risks of the Senior Orphan’s current healthcare system; this allows them to identify needs and concerns related to the care currently received or not received. Registered Nurses rank highest in the midst of all professions.  Nurses are natural advocates and the most trusted (Porter-O’Grady  & Malloch, 2011). When they have the ability to share their experiences and awareness, they advocate for patients and families successfully and are a powerful force in the decision making process.


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