Retiree advocates seek to prevent growing U.S. ‘elder orphan’ problem in Canada



When Ed Jopson’s wife Agnes died from cancer in November, the retiree found himself in an empty house, far removed from the majority of his family.

“We had no children, we have brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews but we were living in Vancouver by ourselves,” he says.

Jopson, who admits he was a workaholic up until retirement, says Agnes had always been the culinary-inclined of the pair. Without her, he’s had to learn to tackle the household chores on his own.

“I’d probably burn water trying to boil it – trying to learn how to cook… it’s been an experience,” he says. But the biggest factor to living alone has been dealing with the absence. “You’re lonely, you find yourself walking around the house just doing things you were always doing but with someone else – it’s a pretty hard adjustment.”

Fortunately, Jopson has two nephews who live in town and a good group of friends. With the cancer, Jopson and Agnes were able to prep their finances for the impending loss and coordinate power of attorney and beneficiary duties.

“I had the advance warning signs,” says Jopson. “But if it had been a car accident or something sudden like that, that’s going to be a lot harder and more difficult for them to be able to handle.”

A recent report by health-care network Northwell Health provided a snapshot of seniors without children living far away from family and found that nearly one-quarter of Americans over age 65 are currently or at risk to become “elder orphans”. A study from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS) saw echoes of the same data, showing 22 per cent of people over age 65 currently are at risk.

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North of the border, Canada hasn’t isolated data on single seniors recently widowed or otherwise living without family close by but according to Statscan, in 2011, 35 per cent of women and 17 per cent of men 65 years of age or older lived alone in private households.

David Lee, Jopson’s financial advisor and elder planning counselor at BlueShore Financial in Vancouver says that around five per cent of his clients fall within the “living alone and without much of a family support network” category.

“Some of this baby boomer generation chose not to have children so you’ve got a situation where they’re managing their finances and (lifestyle) on their own,” he says. “Some people don’t have the financial knowledge – people are delaying collecting their information and putting it all together in things like estate plans or investment planning.”

He says it can compound the challenges of dealing with a sudden loss, putting unnecessary pressure on the single partner who’s left behind.

But Susan Eng, executive vice president of CARP, which lobbies on behalf of older Canadians, says although it’s an issue, she’s not entirely sure it’s a growing challenge divorced from the other challenges facing seniors.She also points out that Canada has healthcare, which will make a big difference for the senior population that is estimated to grow to 23 to 25 per cent by 2036.

“I don’t think they need a new category for this, instead I think we need to look at what it is we are talking about here,” says Eng. “As people get older and as people are more mobile, that what used to be the village and then the nuclear family and then the multi-generational family making sure that no person is going to get into a preventable death, is further away and people are looking for ways to overcome and prevent that.”

In that case, says the retiree advocate, creative solutions are being called upon to ensure a stronger social structure.

Eng points to the Oasis Supportive Living project, a public-private partnership developed by the Frontenac Kingston Council on Aging, where services for seniors were brought right to an apartment building where seniors were already living.

“(Christine McMillan, one of the key advocates behind the program) noticed three or four seniors in the apartment building were on a waiting list for long term care,” says Eng.

A lot of the services the retirees were after – help getting groceries or to appointments, occasional assistance from personal support workers – were already supported by services in the public domain, so she brought them to the building itself.

“Over time this building became known as age-friendly and those people took their names off the waiting list for the nursing home,” she says. “58 out of the 60 units in that building now are occupied by people who take advantage of the assisted living services.”

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The point, says Eng, is there’s an acknowledgement of the idea that communities are growing older and some of those members are single and will need assistance to deal with the effects of social and physical isolation.

“I’m not objecting to the concern that when you’re old you need a range of support,” says Eng. “I’m objecting to the term ‘elder orphan’ and that it’s some new found idea.”

While gaining some scope of the amount of Canadian retirees who might find themselves in a situation where they’re alone, distanced from their family and fend for themselves might help tailor government programming, the more critical part is just getting the discussion started for individuals like Jopson.

“Even one person who finds himself or herself isolated needs access to the social housing movement or assisted living projects,” she says. “If we get enough of those programs going on then I’m not going to have to worry about being left behind – a report like this should be wake up call.”