Aging Outside the Nuclear Family

The demographics of aging are shifting, and the number of single, childless seniors is growing.  Baby boomers, now entering retirement, are much more likely to be childless than previous generations. Some estimates run higher than 25 percent. In addition, more couples have opted to live together outside marriage.  Add to that the fact that women tend to outlive men, and it’s obvious that an increasing number of seniors will be on their own.

Most of them, at some point, will develop a chronic disease or disability. So who will call the  insurance company or ensure that they’re taking their medication?  Most in-home care for the elderly is performed by family members. Hospital stays are getting shorter, driven by cost-saving initiatives, making it even more likely that these seniors will need outside help at some point in their lives.

Their options include friends, paid caregivers and government-sponsored social services. There may be an increased need for long-term care insurance to cover in-home, as well as nursing home, services. And more advance directives are likely to designate friends as health and financial decisionmakers.

Stories are beginning to appear about women building networks of close friends to share household and home care costs, to advocate for one another, and to provide the emotional support that might otherwise come from a spouse or child.  So far, it appears, men have  been less likely to test such situations.

One problem is that such measures are largely unprotected by law.  The Family Medical Leave Act, for instance, provides no benefits to individuals who may wish to care for a grievously ill friend.

There is also little guidance on how to financially structure such mutually supportive arrangements. There’s an emerging movement, though, that seeks to change that.  Some legal scholars are  espousing the establishment of “friendship law,” which would confer certain rights upon “designated friends”  who play a significant caregiver role—including hospital visitation,  tax breaks and claims to an estate if no will has been established. This is, to say the least, controversial.

On the other hand, when the nuclear family can’t provide an answer, what sort of “caretaking community” can step in? There’s  research to support the important role that friends play in the aging process.  Studies indicate that, especially for seniors, having friends can improve both physical and mental health.  It reduces stress, correlates with better immunity and may even be a factor in women’s longevity, given their .greater likelihood of having strong social networks. Ethan Leib, who teaches law at the University of California at Hastings, points to public savings that accrue when friends step in during illness and other emergencies.

Boomers have repeatedly changed our culture. Although childless seniors would seemingly be at greater risk than others, research indicates that –so far—they do not receive less care or enjoy life less than their counterparts.

Do you know someone in this situation? How is that individual planning for the likelihood that, at some point, outside help will be needed?

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