Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Elder Orphans - an October Epiphany

  It doesn’t happen all that often, but I do enjoy finding a new way to make an important point, especially when it comes straight out of the blue. 
 For ten years I have ranted and raved that late-life, our October Years, works best as a shared effort, two of us facing October together. I have written whole books that make that case---following my very senior Tanner Chronicles friends as they stumble toward the relationship they hope will help support them in October and beyond. 
 Having spent so much ink stressing the importance of their search, and its possible impact on their often intimidating future, you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I came across an effective and incredibly descriptive way of defining my friends’ dilemma---in just two words.
 Elder Orphan. Take a moment to repeat those words out loud. To me they have the ring of an epiphany---a striking, suddenly revealed truth. In two short, well-defined words is captured the essence of a  growing, wide-spread October Years crisis. 
 Lest you think my not-so-nimble mind has created that simple, yet startling insight, I am happy to credit a Huffington Post blog by Carol Marak (, part of an extended blog series on Aging Alone that addresses Elder Orphan problems and possibilities from a personal perspective.
 As a label “Elder Orphan” is both catchy, and amazingly accurate. It is the term  Marak uses to frame her own unsettling questions. 
 “Who will care for us?” she asks. “Who will look out for us? Dealing with late-life complexities is hard enough in the best of circumstances, But who will help us---the aging, childless, single---when we are alone?”
 Those “lonely ones” are the Elder Orphans. Like their infant counterparts, they are literally on their own at a distressingly vulnerable time of life, and just as much in need of the relational support of a caring “someone.”
 Chances are they are socially and physically isolated, living without a family member or surrogate. They are lonely, often depressed, and dealing deteriorating decision-making capacity. To make matters worse they are not even acknowledged as a group that needs help.
 And what about the help many of those orphans are bound to need over time? According to Ms. Marak a recent AARP report offers little solace, confirming that the demand for elder caregivers continues to grown faster than the supply. In the face of funding shortfalls and rapidly increasing costs, Caregiver per Orphan ratios are steadily declining across the county. Being an Elder Orphan is not about to get easier.
 Though I was operating without that label, I have been telling stories about Elder Orphans for all that time. Perhaps the best example I can offer from my writing is Johnny Blanton, from Best Friends and Promises. He lives in a senior complex, surrounded by neighbors who scarcely acknowledge his presence. Though he would be unwilling to admit as much, in many important ways Johnny has become an orphan.

For all his gregarious instincts Johnny Blanton led a spartan, decidedly isolated existence, the unfortunate result of circumstances over which he had little control. In the course of his four year residency in the County operated Senior Housing Complex he had concluded that his neighbors, as a group, suffered from a multitude of shared failings. To a person they were old, financially strapped, grouchy, and judgmental. Most depressing of all, not one of them subscribed to his long cultivated interest in having a good time.
Wary, unsmiling widows were everywhere. He passed them in the hallways. They crowded the dingy activity room. Without exception he found them to be unnaturally distrusting of his well-intentioned attention. At one time or another he had approached nearly all of them, hoping to spark some degree of interest. He had struck out at every turn. 
Except for Mrs. Perkins, who lived across the hall from his apartment and provided him with a steady supply of day-old newspapers, Johnny had not made one female acquaintance in the entire thirty-unit complex. He took that sad reality, and the slight it represented, very personally.
To make matters worse Johnny’s success at winning friends among the male residents, he called them “inmates,” had been only slightly better. Many were deaf, blind, or immobile---which tended to limit their “good time” potential. The few who still found drinking beer a viable social pursuit were no more affluent than Johnny. After years of having Aaron Peck and others pick up the tab, he was reluctant to cultivate drinking buddies who expected him to play that role. 
As a result, his social life had become seriously constrained. For three years Willie Thomas, who did not drink at all, but played a mean game of cribbage, had been his most reliable ally among the residents. With Willie’s passing the previous December that welcome friendship had been lost.
In his heart of hearts Johnny Blanton was a very social creature. It appeared, however, that in the sterile confines of the Senior Complex his declining years were destined to be lived out in a state of stagnant depression. To his way of thinking it would take a miracle to change that unfortunate situation.

Everyone of us knows an orphan, probably more than one.They sit in the midst of our congregations. We pass them in the supermarket aisles, and rub elbows with them at the senior center. 
It’s been just five days since my friend Dr. Thelma Reese ( sent the Huffington Post article my way. I don’t pretend to have any “Elder Orphan” wisdom to dispense. Yet I realized the first time I read Ms Marak’s post that I wanted that label and what it stands for to be part of my personal October Years dialogue, with you and myself, now and in the future
In the meantime---when you have a chance, hug an orphan..


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  2. I do have your blog bookmarked, but no, I have by no means read them all. In fact, I only became aware when you made the effort to keep the class of 1955 from self imploding. Thank you for that effort. I have read the blogs you refer to in your "class notes", and usually a few more while I am on your site, but I do not have a habit of going there to search out your current words of wisdom. I liked you when we were young, and I admire what you have become.