Understanding the Challenges of Elder Orphans
Statistics from the community of seniors aging in place alone
by Carol Marak

From what I read or see in advertising, senior service providers may not be cognizant of a particular segment of the older demographic. It could be that most have the misconception that every older adult person is married, with 2.5 children, owns their home, has two cars, and if lucky, a vacation place.

That scenario could be true for some people, however, if professionals maintain this perception, they will miss close to 30 percent of the senior population who live alone. Now, that is not to say those aging alone don’t have children—it may be that their kids are estranged or don’t live close enough to be of assistance. This is the situation I found myself in after my parents died. I’m not married, have no children and I live alone.

After reading the medical research about people in my situation, it inspired the launch of the Elder Orphans Facebook group. In this online community, we discuss the challenges of growing older without the support of nearby family, especially the issues of transportation, affordable housing, paying for health care and drugs, and other costly expenses.

Since individuals in the group are 100 percent responsible for paying bills and expenses, paychecks and retirement income is smaller than households with double occupancy.

In the Elder Orphans Facebook group, I created polls that address our expectations about the overall quality of health over the next five to 10 years. The results of the polls (found at the end of the webpage) are for senior care providers to consider.

Health Care Insurance

The National Council on Aging reports 80 percent of older adults live with one chronic illness, and 77 percent have two conditions. That’s the total of all seniors, so consider that 30 percent of them live alone and pay for medical expenses from one pocketbook.

Recently, I read about an insurance plan that provides financial help for health care expenses—critical illness coverage—and it plays a significant role for folks with a chronic condition. A policyholder of critical illness coverage could receive a lump-sum benefit to apply to expenses. It’s a supplemental policy.

Critical illness insurance provides a per-day benefit for surgery, a hospital drug benefit, and benefits for other treatments. It could stabilize the financial drain most patients experience and help them avoid lost income.

Long-term Care Insurance

Especially for folks living alone, a provider needs to show us how the policy can help us get care at home. Health care insurance will also need to address our challenges with supplemental coverages that deal with aging in place concerns such as transportation, isolation and loneliness. Before that happens, I encourage senior service professionals to learn how to assess the needs of the living-alone segment.

Questions for Clients

  • Do you have a spouse or significant other?
  • Do you have children? Are they nearby?
  • Do you have family members or friends that help you cope with life challenges?
  • Do you have someone to help you make medical decisions?
  • Do you have someone to help with bills and financial decisions?
  • Do you have a health care proxy or any advance directives?
  • Who is the person you would call upon in an emergency or crisis?
  • Do you have a home health aide to help with personal care such as bathing, dressing and other activities of daily living?

Senior service professionals can support clients with suggestions such as:

  • Have your legal documents in place: a will, a living will, a health care proxy and a power of attorney.
  • Live close (walking distance) to public transportation.
  • Find someone you can rely on for support and care and exchange services.
  • Hire a chronic care advocate if you live with a prolonged medical condition.
  • Eat fresh, healthy foods.
  • Stay fit or as active as possible with your doctor’s okay.
  • Keep your brain sharp by getting involved in new hobbies or mentoring others.

Ask if clients understand:

  1. Medicare does not pay for long-term custodial care services. The health insurance program only pays for the acute medical care, doctor visits, drugs and a hospital stay.
  2. Medicaid helps individuals living with low income and assets, and it pays for some of the health care expenses.
  3. Paying for long-term care is out-of-pocket, unless you have a long-term care policy, and pays for long-term supports and services.
  4. Private health insurance policies may cover some types of long-term care.
  5. Disability insurance replaces income and does not include long-term care services and supports.


The Facebook group has opened my eyes to the hardships of people 55 and over. It’s true that aging and growing older is not for sissies and requires gumption and courage.

I admit, there’s a lot of depressing discussions here but on the other hand, many more are hopeful that technology, housing developers and health care providers will evolve and come up with affordable and sound solutions.


  1. Look at the broad picture.
  2. Don’t think “disrupt the entire industry,” instead disrupt the thinking.
  3. Focus on building a service that customers want and enjoy.

In the words of Mark Bonchek (Harvard), “Companies that successfully market and sell innovation can shift how people think not only about their product, but about themselves, the market and the world. Don’t sell a product, sell a whole new way of thinking.”

There is reason for optimism. Research shows that the majority of elders want to stay in the workforce, to travel, to learn new skills, find entertainment, stay fit and to connect.

Poll Results

How do you view your quality of life, including your financial well-being, mental and physical health, recreation and leisure time?

  • 40 percent—It will become somewhat worse
  • 30 percent—It will be about the same
  • 15 percent—It will be somewhat better
  • 10 percent—It will be much worse
  • 5 percent—It will be much better

Discussions around the topic suggested that those who planned for this stage of life are the ones who are better off and look forward to retirement. How satisfied are you with your community’s resources and services, about helping you lead a healthy and independent lifestyle?

  • 50 percent—Are neither satisfied or dissatisfied; they’ve never used community services
  • 25 percent—Are satisfied
  • 25 percent—Are not satisfied

The problem for those who don’t have an opinion about the local services is a result of not knowing what the community offers. How would you describe your health status over the past year?

  • 30 percent—Normal, it’s stable
  • 30 percent—A little worse than normal
  • 20 percent—A lot worsethan normal
  • 15 percent—A little better than normal
  • 5 percent—The worst yet

Obviously, health is a top issue, along with affordable housing. How affordable are housing options currently available to you?

  • 40 percent—Very unaffordable
  • 25 percent—Somewhat affordable
  • 20 percent—Somewhat unaffordable
  • 15 percent—Very affordable

These statistics are meant to give senior service providers a better idea of what individuals living alone are up against so that when they are developing services, they will have a better understanding of the market.