Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Elder Orphans - an October Epiphany - Take Two


I won’t apologize for this updated bit of repetition that I offer for those who did not see it the first time. It is another of those subjects I have dealt with before, and may well address again some day. It is, to be sure, a repeat. It's also, in my muddled, moss-covered opinion an increasingly serious matter---one that deserves another look.
For twelve years now I have written over and over that late-life, our October and November Years, works best as a shared effort, when two or more of us---friends and lovers, family and caregivers, face that sometime harsh time together. I have written whole books making that case---following my Tanner Chronicles friends as they stumble toward the relationships or other arrangements that will help support them in October and beyond. 
Having spent so much ink stressing that point, you can perhaps imagine my pleasant surprise when, several months ago, I came across an effective and incredibly descriptive way, with just two words, of defining those seniors who are not that fortunate---the ones who are forced to face late-life alone.
It may be those folks are Elder Orphans. Take a moment to repeat those words out loud. When I first heard them they had the ring of an epiphany---a striking, suddenly-revealed truth. In two short, well-defined words, catchy and amazingly accurate, is captured the essence of a growing, wide-spread October Years crisis. I was impressed at the time, and still am. Like a lot of things, the more aware we become, the more we are able to see the all-too-obvious signs all around us.
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 (www.twitter.com/Carebuzz), part of an extended blog series on Aging Alone that addressed Elder Orphan problems and possibilities from a personal perspective. 
“Who will care of them?” she asked. “Who will look out for those unfortunate ones? Dealing with late-life complexities is hard enough in the best of circumstances. But who will help the aging, the childless, the single---when they are alone and in need?”
Those “lonely ones” are, of course, 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 caring support.
Chances are they are socially and physically isolated, living without a family member or surrogate. Too often they are lonely, depressed, and dealing with diminished decision-making capabilities. To make matters worse they are seldom acknowledged as a group or class that needs help.
So what does the future hold for our elder orphan population? By all accounts their numbers are increasing, and the help they need grows accordingly. Going forward it is likely that more seniors will need more help for a longer period of time. According to Ms. Marak a recent AARP report offers precious 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 country. Being an Elder Orphan is not about to get easier.
Though I operated without that catchy label for all those years, my Tanner Chronicle stories often focused on those who qualified as Elder Orphans. Take for instance Johnny Blanton, one of my favorite Tanner friends, who happened to remind me of someone special. In Best Friends and Promises Johnny lives in a low-cost, county-owned apartment, surrounded by neighbors who scarcely acknowledge his presence. Though he would be unwilling to admit as much, (Actually he would scream like hell.), in many important ways he had become an orphan. You tell me, is this a viable depiction of an Elder 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, as a group, his neighbors 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  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, and 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 making 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. Sadly, 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.

An unfortunate situation, eh? One that begs for a compassionate storyteller to provide the “miracle” Johnny is hoping for. That, however, is something for another day. After all, storytelling---fictional accounts of fictional situations---is one thing. Real life in the Elder Orphan fast lane is something very different, something that you and I can play our part in addressing.
You see, most of us know an elder orphan, probably more than one. They sit in the midst of our congregations. We may pass them shuffling behind their walker in the supermarket aisle, or rub elbows with them at the senior center. You may  also find them in hospital emergency rooms, their only source of the health care most of us take for granted. They are, in fact, everywhere---out of sight right before our eyes.
So, from the first time I read Ms Marak’s post 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. 
And along the way I hope I can be observant enough, and bold enough, to spot the elder orphans who cross my path---to acknowledge their place in my world, and perhaps take the time to hear a bit of their story. 
That’s an important thing, you know, showing them that for at least a few minutes someone cares enough to listen. There are so many folks out there who need our casual gift---the simple act of acknowledging and affirming their presence. Isn’t that what every orphan wants, no matter what their age?

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