The Aging Population

The population of America is aging.  We’re getting older.  That may seem self-evident but the problem is, it’s not just us.  Rather, the proportion of older people within our society is increasing and the ratio of young to old is shrinking.  In 2012, there were 43 million people aged 65 or over in the US, compared to just 35 million only ten years earlier, in 2002[1].  It is estimated that by 2029, 20% of the US population will be 65 years old or over, and that by 2056, the population of over-65s will bigger than that of the population of under 18s[2].  This, in part, is due to the so-called baby boom generation – those born in the fertile post-war years between 1946 and 1964.  The oldest of this group turned 65 back in 2011 and the youngest will probably need health care right through to 2060.  Many chose to remain child-free, which in itself isn’t a problem, but as the population continues to age, so difficulties begin to show. 

The Baby-Boomers and What They Become

The baby-boomers are now facing a new, and perhaps less spritely name: the elder orphans.  The term, coined recently, refers to older people who need care yet have no relatives either at all or living nearby.  Dr. Maria Torroella Carny, the chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at North Shore Health System, released a paper last week discussing just that issue.  These elderly people, who are often divorced or widowed and have no children, have no support system and are effectively ‘orphaned’ during a particularly vulnerable time in their lives.  She uses case studies to demonstrate just how serious this can be and how devastating the potential consequences are[3]

This issue is not a small one either.  Carney’s research shows that around 22% of America’s over-65s are single and thus are in danger of becoming or are already elder orphans.  Likewise, 2012 research shows that a third of 45-63 year olds are single and again, are in a position to become elder orphans – so the situation is set to get worse[4].  As the population continues to age even further, something needs to be done.  

The Misery of the Elder Orphans

It’s not only the baby-boomers, of course that could potentially suffer from this and it won’t only affect those who’ve chosen to remain childfree.  The consequences though, can be devastating.  The problem, Dr Maria Raven, emergency medical physician at the University of California, explains, is that many older people who are afflicted with mental illness or dementia, simply don’t understand that they can no longer live on their own or that they need help.  Without family around them to push them in the right direction, they are left alone in unpleasant and often dangerous surroundings.  Even lesser afflictions such as urinary tract infections, she continues, can affect the cognitive functions of older people in ways that younger generations simply don’t experience[5].  Carney, author of the recent paper, also talks about older generation’s lack of assistance when it comes to their basic needs.  Not only do elder orphans suffer health issues and face potential loneliness and depression, but also struggle to complete simple daily chores such as cleaning, cooking, and grocery shopping[6]

A Call to Action

With such potentially devastating results, and with such a massive potential to explode into a greater problem, it’s clear that something needs to be done - the plight of elder orphans can no longer be ignored.  In the big picture, Carney suggests that “we need to really evaluate and assess the risks facing these individuals and create programs, plans and strategies”[7] and argues that community members, social workers, government agencies, and health care providers need to work together to find positive and productive solutions[8]

On a smaller scale, we need to look out for one another.  Check on neighbours and friends, find out if they have family or are receiving the help that they need.  Spreading awareness of elder orphans will help too, and if you fear that you could become an elder orphan yourself in later years, make preparations now.  Prepare yourself financially if you can, and build up a network of friends.  Find an advocate, in case of emergencies, and make sure you know about any benefits that you are entitled to, such as those that come with long-term health insurance plans.  However you prepare, and however you help those in need, one thing is for sure: as human beings, we cannot let these vulnerable elderly people continue to suffer in this way. 


[1] Caroline Storrs, 2015, The Elder Orphans of the Baby Boom Generation, [online].  Available at:, [accessed 06.17.2015]

[2] Sandra L. Colby and Jennifer M. Ortman, 2014, The Baby Boom Cohort in the United States: 2012 to 2060, [online].  Available at:, [accessed 06.17.2015]

[3] Caroline Storrs, op. cit.

[4] Caroline Storrs, op. cit.

[5] Randy Dotinga, 2015, The Plight of America’s ‘Elder Orphans’, [online].  Available at:, [accessed 06.17.2015]

[6] Jonathan Lapook, 2015, More American Seniors at Risk of Becoming “Elder Orphans”, [online].  Available at:, [accessed 06.17.2015]

[7] Cited in Randy Dotinga, op. cit.

[8] Randy Dotinga, op. cit.

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Baby Boomers and the Elder Orphans that they become by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Victoria Froud, M.A is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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