About a decade ago, I began to notice that many of my friends and work colleagues were spending a tremendous amount of time and energy making sure their aging parents were managing their lives in a safe and healthy way and receiving care when necessary. In some cases, they were making multiple trips across the country, and in others they were doing the caring themselves. A few were lucky their parents lived nearby, so they didn’t need to relocate or travel to fulfill this important emotional contract.
I do not have children and my parents’ deaths were several decades in the past, so it is only by observation that I have realized how much the older generation depends upon their adult children. All of this growing awareness of how one generation historically has taken care of the previous one led me to the question, “Who will do this for us?” By “us” I mean the millions of baby boomers who, like me, do not have adult children, as well as those whose children are estranged or live very far away.
In 2012, no one was researching, writing, talking, or apparently even thinking about what I subsequently labeled “Solo Aging,” so I dove in. What I discovered may seem obvious now: Prior to the boomers, most people married, had kids, and remained in the town where they grew up. There were fewer divorces, earlier and quicker deaths, and closer relationships with family. With the boomers came the pill, women’s liberation, equal opportunity legislation, and easier mobility. The rate of childlessness, whether by choice or by happenstance, almost doubled with the boomers (U.S. Census, 2021) and has remained high in subsequent generations.
‘What had been obscure and rarely discussed in 2019 became a hot topic by 2022.’
My research, including many interviews with Solo Agers across the United States, became a book, Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers: A Retirement and Aging Roadmap for Single and Childless Adults (Geber, 2018). It covers the many roles that adult children typically play in the lives of their aging parents and how Solo Agers can prepare for that care in other ways. It tackles the thorny question of where to live in later life and provides definitions and guidance on traditional and non-traditional living environments for older adults.
Thanks to the pandemic, isolation and loneliness are now front and center in new research on the pitfalls of aging. The media has picked up on the trend as well and along with this came a much greater awareness of Solo Aging. What had been obscure and rarely discussed in 2019 was a hot topic by 2022. Sales of my book took off and requests for presentations and articles rose significantly. People were finally paying attention to a demographic phenomenon that will, in my opinion, be a significant challenge to individuals and society as the boomers move into their later years.
Although I initially defined the term Solo Ager more narrowly (as anyone who did not have adult children), the definition has since expanded to include those who are aging alone for any reason and do not foresee support of any kind from family. I include married and/or partnered people in that definition. After all, without a crystal ball, no one knows who will pre-decease the other. For that reason, both should plan to be Solo Agers.
I often am asked about what Solo Agers need to do differently from their counterparts who have children and/or other family support. I believe everyone should engage in robust planning for their later years—primarily for care and financial support. For most people, that means seeking out a legal professional to help set up powers of attorney for health and financial decisions and updating those documents on a regular basis. What is so challenging for Solo Agers is finding the right people to carry out their wishes.
Solo Agers face unique challenges related to social support and caregiving. Without a spouse or adult children, they lack the immediate family members who can assist them with day-to-day tasks, healthcare decisions, and emotional support. The requirement to find the right people can be so daunting that many Solo Agers just plant their heads in the sand and hope for the best. Not a good plan!
However, the planning piece that is most critical for Solo Agers is to develop and maintain a social network. Solo Agers may need to rely upon friends, neighbors, or community organizations as alternative sources of support, especially if they are determined to continue to live alone.
Engaging in community activities and building social connections becomes vital for Solo Agers to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation. Participating in local groups and senior centers, volunteering, or joining interest-based organizations can provide opportunities for meaningful connections and emotional well-being.
Finding the right people can be so daunting that many Solo Agers just plant their heads in the sand and hope for the best.
The articles in this Generations Journal issue provide a deeper look into the lives of Solo Agers in many different circumstances and a variety of locations. Carol Marak shares her story as well as stories of other Solo Agers she has known and coached over the past 8 years; Wendl Kornfeld details a unique program in New York City that has changed the lives of Solo Agers there; Linda Camp writes about the success of a program for Solo Agers in Minneapolis called (appropriately) “The Backup Plan”; Joy Loverde, author of the book Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old? (2017), describes how everyone should prepare for long-term care.
One major question Solo Agers have to face is, “Where will I live in my older years?” It is critically important for Solo Agers to guard against isolation and loneliness later in life, so Charles Durrett, Jill Vitale-Aussem, and Annamarie Pluhar present a variety of potential housing solutions for Solo Agers, some of which will likely be unfamiliar to readers. Karen McPhail also touches on the housing conundrum in her article on Solo Agers in the LGBTQ+ community.
There are, of course, cultural differences in the way Solo Agers are perceived and treated in their communities. Elizabeth White, author of 55, Underemployed and Faking Normal (2019), shares with us the perspectives of Black women who are Solo Agers, and we are lucky to have Manisha Shah, a Master of Social Work student at India’s University of Mumbai, who has written about the phenomenon of Solo Aging among single women in that large, urban city.
“What legacy will I leave?” becomes a question in the mind of most elders. To conclude that Solo Agers are incapable of leaving a legacy would be a big mistake, as Mary Young points out in her article. Financial health and well-being also loom large as concerns for most Solo Agers. Rob Lyman sheds some light on the key factors involved in financial health and shares a list of the key professional partners in a Solo Ager’s well-thought-out support team. Supplementing that is an article by several authors from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). They take readers through the various legal instruments necessary to ensure a secure future.
Solo Agers come in many forms and we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that many people who live alone and consider themselves Solo Agers became so when they lost a spouse or partner. Helen Dennis helps us to understand how it feels to become a Solo Ager later in life and the challenges inherent therein.
I’m happy to say that today I can count on these authors and many other wonderful colleagues who are invested in helping Solo Agers to plan for the later stages of their lives. I am optimistic that in the next few years we will also find the ears of policymakers, plenty of whom are Solo Agers themselves or have Solo Agers in their families. They should be able to relate to these issues and make sure later generations of Solo Agers are a major consideration in the provisions they make for older adults in our society.
Sara Zeff Geber, PhD, is an author, retirement transition coach, and professional speaker on retirement and aging. She lives with her husband in Northern California.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/simona pilolla 2
Geber, S. Z. (2021). Essential retirement planning for solo agers: A retirement and aging roadmap for single and childless adults. Mango.
Loverde, J. (2017). Who will take care of me when I’m old? Da Capo Lifelong Books.
U.S. Census. (2021). First-Ever Census Bureau report highlights growing childless older adult population. www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/childless-older-adult-population.html
White, E. (2019). 55, underemployed, and faking normal: Your guide to a better life. Simon & Schuster.