As the nation’s large baby boomer population continues to age, some childless seniors are wondering who will take care of them at the end of life. The Sacramento Bee’s Anita Creamer highlights such individuals in a new feature focusing on the struggles childless seniors face in planning for their future.
Creamer spoke with Karen Spencer, 60, who didn’t marry until she was in her late forties. Like more than 20 percent of her generation’s women, she’s one of the 15 million boomers who never had children.
“I have nieces and nephews who would show up, but I don’t want them to feel like it’s necessary to take care of me,” said Spencer who lives in Granite Bay, California with her 68 year-old husband Mike Twigg. “Either I go into assisted living, or I stay in my home with somebody taking care of me. That would be my intention with the long-term care insurance.”
Although she has some savings and a long-term care insurance policy, she worries about the non-monetary situations that could arise, such as the need for home repairs, hospital advocacy and family visits.
“These are issues that we’ll have to grapple with as a country,” said Lynn Feinberg, an AARP policy expert on caregiving. “When somebody needs long-term care, they typically turn to their children.”
There is an increasing reliance on fewer family members to take care of older relatives. “The expectation on a nephew to care for his elderly aunt as well as his own parents and children presents a real challenge,” said Feinberg.
In 2000, there were more than 35 million Americans 65 and older. By 2030, there will be 72 million.
Creamer describes this issue as a women’s issue, because two-thirds of the 11 million boomers who’ve already lost their spouses are female. Experts aren’t quite sure what will happen to frail seniors without children on whom to rely.
“Even so, both baby boomers and their elders indulge in a rather startling lack of planning for their care needs in old age,” Creamer writes. A recent Centers for Disease Control study shows that only 37 percent of older adults who aren’t in nursing homes or hospice care – and only 15 percent of all adults – have completed legal proxies to specify who can make decisions on their behalf.
Dr. Larry Weiss, founder of Reno’s Center for Healthy Aging, and Feinberg suggest a “Golden Girls” scenario becoming increasingly popular. Small group of seniors are starting to live together, sharing expenses and caring for one another.
Last year, The New York Times’ Paula Span wrote about childless seniors and their quality of life. She interviewed Dr. Merril Silverstein, a gerontologist at the University of Southern California, who found that people at least 75 years old with trouble walking across a room weren’t receiving less care than those who were parents. They also didn’t score lower on measures of psychological well-being.
“The popular idea was that without children, you’d be in a whole heap of trouble,” Dr. Silverstein said. “But there’s not a whole lot of empirical evidence showing that.”
Seniors can stay in their homes
Henry Cisneros and Jane Hickie, of the Stanford Center on Longevity, offer some advice on how seniors could stay in their homes if necessary changes happen within them.
American housing design standards have undergone few changes since 1964, Hickie said last month at the Northwestern University Buehler Center on Aging. Home construction then was based on measurements of able-bodied men who were in military service during World War II. “The problem is that these design standards don’t fit a population that is shorter, less flexible, fatter, has less muscle mass and is just not as strong as younger people who were the basis for those standards.”
Contrasting colored lining on steps and furniture, better lighting and guide lights can help seniors continue to live in their own homes.
Spencer likes the idea of staying in her home and being surrounded by friends. Spencer and a life-long friend talk about staying in the same neighborhood and eventually traveling together.