The number of Americans at risk of becoming so-called elder orphans, or seniors left isolated without a spouse, friends or children in the area, is on the rise, fueled by the huge wave of baby boomers entering their retirement years and more people living as singles later in life.
Nearly one in four Americans above age 65 is now in danger of becoming an elder orphan, according to the Institute for Family Studies in Charlottesville, Virginia. That’s a problem because while many have saved the money they need to live comfortably in retirement, they don’t have the right supports to help manage their lives as their mental and physical health declines.
Take the case of one widow living alone in Boulder, Colorado, who came up with a novel plan for handling her home and cherished possessions.
She wrote out her wishes on sticky notes, affixing hundreds of tiny labels to paintings, appliances and furniture, spelling out who would get what – or who wouldn't – and why.
“Everything that she owned had a Post-it note on it," remembers Paul DeLauro, manager of wealth planning at City National Bank, who at the time was part of a financial services team assigned to sort out the woman's estate after her death. “More often that not, it was a note of grievance: 'This is not going to my daughter – she was mean to me.’” The problem with these sticky notes is that they don’t work legally, as they are not part of a will. Moreover, they can be torn off or moved to different items, or ignored completely.
But even more troubling than this method of handling her estate
, were the huge mistakes she made in her financial affairs near the end of her life.
“She was spending a fortune on healthcare that she was not getting,” DeLauro says. “She kept writing checks for a mortgage that had been paid off years before.”
This was not a case of mental illness, DeLauro says, rather just one glaring illustration of what can happen to elder orphans without the proper support team in place.
Experts say it is critically important for such individuals to take the right steps years ahead of time to build adequate support networks. Specifically, they need to surround themselves with a cast of able supporters – either trusted friends or paid professionals – who can help run their financial affairs, make medical decisions if they become incapacitated, and also meet basic social needs.
People who mistakenly assume they will always be self-reliant can end up vulnerable to social isolation, loneliness and depression once their health starts to fail or they begin suffering mental confusion, notes Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, chief of geriatrics at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Long Island, New York.
“People may have abilities that kept them independent, but that strength can be a hindrance at times,” Carney says. "You need to be proactive and prepare your future and create a plan for yourself. You should know what resources are available in the community where you live. There are senior programs
, and offices of aging , that are available, and you should reach out.”
Carney, who presented a widely publicized report on the elder orphan issue to the American Geriatrics Society in May, became particularly interested in the plight of isolated seniors after Hurricane Sandy devastated portions of the Atlantic seaboard in 2012.
“A lot of individuals in the shelters seemed to be older, living in areas that needed evacuation, and did not have a place to go to,” she says. Not much was even written on the subject, Carney says.
Financially, elder orphans are often at enormous risk – and not necessarily just from scam artists, says DeLauro.
More often, they simply lose the energy and acuity to keep track of their own affairs, DeLauro says. They make foolish moves or fail to exploit obvious financial opportunities.
They cheat themselves out of having the strongest possible income stream to help them live the way they want throughout their twilight years. For many of them, DeLauro says, achieving a high quality of life is “all about cash flow,” but they lose sight of the larger picture.
DeLauro recommends starting from a simple assumption: You will become feeble and confused. “And if you are wrong, thank God,” he says.
Then create a team to manage an overall wealth plan. Its first member should be a trusted financial planner or accountant. Typically, a banker, personal attorney and a real
-estate expert also should be part of the inner circle, DeLauro says.
Working together to evaluate the entirety of an estate, the team can consider any number of decisions from a variety of angles.
“The danger is not just fraud,” DeLauro says. “It's that one person will fail to see an opportunity. You need eyes-on-target to make sure the client is well served.”
It's vital that the team meet at least once a year to review the wealth plan, DeLauro says. Over time, needs change. You might require nursing care. That getaway home in Palm Beach might no longer be useful, or maybe it should be sold or rented out.
The right planning creates peace of mind, he says.
“If you knew every year that a team of professionals had looked at your finances and said, ‘You're in great shape,’ it would help you feel good,” DeLauro says. “It would help eliminate the feeling of aloneness.”