In the United States, the American Geriatric Society considers an elder orphan to be a person who is alone and who has no family members or children around who can help them in the event of medical, financial, legal or end-of-life issues.
In South Africa, we see elder orphans as seniors who are on their own, whose family or children have emigrated to another part of the world, and as such have no-one around who can assist them in their time of need.
It is sad to see that modern living and globalisation has isolated many families and it is the seniors that suffer, as they are left on their own, far from their beloved family members.
The Greek meaning of the word “orphan” (orphanos) is “bereaved”, and bereft is how many South African seniors feel when their loved ones are not close. They feel isolated and alone.
In the USA, 60 percent of nursing home residents do not have visitors. We are unaware of the South African stats in this regard, but it is likely that the percentage is also very high.
Is there a solution to avoid having a population of elder orphans who are bereft of all support?
China might have got it right! They passed a law that requires adult children to visit their elderly parents on a regular basis. If they do not, they run the risk of being sued. (Click here to read the article on You’ve Earned It).
Should programmes be started in schools or in the community that could encourage, or even financially reward people across the generations to visit nursing homes and isolated seniors? The only downside to this is that there is potential for abuse or even neglect and exploitation when it comes to the vulnerable elderly.
Should the government put measures in place where not only family are able to take compassionate leave, but friends as well? Friends who are willing to assist in caring for those unable to take care of themselves, provided their current employment is protected.
One thing is clear, it is important that seniors, and especially elder orphans, prepare for ageing, and consider making an end-of-life plan without delay. What if you have a stroke and can’t communicate? What if the proverbial bus gets you and you become incapacitated? The future can sneak up on you before you even know it.
While elder orphans are still physically, mentally and financially able, they should plan their future and consider the ageing process. Elder orphans should identify a person who can be their representative in terms of making decisions and act as their power of attorney. In the end-of-life plan, one should stipulate where they would like to live, whether or not they are an organ donor, the funeral plan – right down to the hymns, the pall-bearers and the eulogies. An elder orphan should make out a will, and get their documentation in place. An end-of-life plan could include your wishes as to the type of care you would like in a crisis.
In addition, it is worth considering preparing a Household Handbook i.e. a book that keeps all the contact details of significant people in your life (doctor, lawyer and any family or friends
who may live elsewhere). This Household Handbook should include so-called trivials e.g. where to turn the electricity off, where the important documentation is kept etc.
Anne M, a 93-year old lady living in Cape Town, suffered a stroke. Her husband had died several years earlier, she had no children and there were no immediate family to contact regarding her care and support. This led to a crisis regarding her post-hospital care. Eventually a distant relative was tracked down and they could assist in decisions made regarding her care. If Anne had had a Household Handbook, much of this crisis could have been averted.
If elder orphans plan for the future, they will be able to take charge of their health care decisions when they cannot verbalise them. They will be financially ready if they have taken the costs into consideration. Elder orphans will be enabled to have a more healthy future as they will be more inclined to take better care of themselves.
Don’t put your head in the sand – being prepared for later life is critical.
Are you an elder orphan? We invite you to share your comments with us…