The world’s population is rapidly aging but not all elderly adults have a spouse, partner or family they can count on to help them when they are frail, sick or injured. One 85-year-old Chinese man recently caught the media’s attention by posting a note in his neighborhood looking for a family or individual to adopt him, aware that his current good health would one day falter and desperately lonely after the loss of his wife.
This somber tale of an elderly man reaching out for companionship and care in his last chapter of life is not an isolated incident, despite the rather unconventional approach for finding support in old age. In America, nearly a third of older adults living independently are alone and older women are twice as likely as elderly men to live alone. The likelihood of living alone increases with age and almost half of women over the age of 75 live by themselves.
While most seniors wouldn’t go to the lengths of posting a notice hoping someone will “adopt” them and become the family they lack, the desire to be part of a larger group that feels like family is not unique. We all crave belonging and it’s not only the fear of dying alone that prompts us to seek companionship, it’s a important component of well-being. Seniors who are isolated have a higher mortality rate, are more likely to report poor physical or mental health, and are at greater risk of dementia.
Less likely to have have children, LGBTQ seniors are twice as likely to live alone and are often estranged from their families. Because of stigmas and discrimination, many older LGBTQ adults suffer social isolation and are wary of reaching out to community groups for support. But with more education and widening tolerance and awareness, more groups and online resources are becoming available for LGBTQ seniors, according to SAGE (Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders).
Aside from placing an ad, orphaned seniors can start feeling less isolated by taking proactive steps to stay socially connected with their community. Volunteering can reduce isolation and loneliness and help create a social circle that can offer support in times of need. Seniors might want to take a class and computer training can open the window of technology to stay connected with the greater world. Some may consider joining a group exercise program; studies have shown regular physical activity can reduce senior isolation. And many single seniors will opt to move to a 55-and-older community or participate in the growing co-housing movement.
Cultivating meaningful relationships is important throughout our lives and too often couples or working adults become insular, unintentionally isolating themselves from the connections they will rely upon in older age, especially after the loss of a partner. Taking steps right now at 50, 60, 70 or even 80 to re-establish friendships or seek out a tribe of your own will only enhance the experience of older age and provide a support system if and when you are in need.