Agencies that work with seniors are noticing a growing trend: whether by choice or circumstances, more older Americans are aging alone.
“When you go to the doctor, what do they do?” said Charles Ware, 83, a retiree and former trustee with the Teamsters union who lives in Clayton and advocates for Georgia seniors. “They ask where are your nearest relatives?”
Ware’s two children live in different cities, but he’s fortunate because a close friend lives close by helps him with doctor’s appointments and invites him to family functions. Still, he would like for his son to move closer.
But he knows it’s not the same for everyone.
Several years ago, he brought his older sister from Las Vegas to live with him because he was worried about her being put in a nursing home or being the target of a scam aimed at the elderly. He knows older women locally who are “afraid to come out of their houses,” he said. “There are no buses (where they live) and they can’t take a daily walk.”
The number of people who are growing old alone is expected to increase as America grays.
By 2030, one in five residents in the Atlanta region will be over 60, experts say. And according to the 2010 census, people ages 45 to 64 make up the fastest-growing segment in the Atlanta region, showing the greatest percentage increase between 2000 and 2010.
The census tallied more than 1.3 million Baby Boomers ages 45 to 64 in the 20-county region, an increase of nearly 50 percent since 2000. Seniors 65-and-older represented the second fastest growing segment, rising by 45 percent since 2000, according the the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Today’s older adults are living longer, which means the chances of living alone at some point are greater than in previous generations.
For Brian Dennis, 75, it’s by choice. He lives in a senior high rise in Buckhead. His one-bedroom apartment is filled with photos of children and grandchildren. Problem is, they all live out of state. Only one daughter lives in metro Atlanta, but he said while they love each other, he hasn’t talked to her in few months.
The retiree said he’s alright with being alone, but admits sometimes it gets lonely.
“But it is what it is,” he said.
The reasons more seniors live alone vary.
Some have lost partners or spouses to death or divorce. Others never married or had children. Adult children have moved to other states for work. Older parents have moved elsewhere to retire.
“We have definitely seen an increase in the number of seniors in need and really do not have a safety net, be it a family member, neighbor or church friend like people depended on in the past,” said Jeffrey Smythe, executive director of Meals on Wheels Atlanta, which delivers about 114,000 meals annually.
“They come to us without any support. We’re definitely seeing that isolated senior.”
Sometimes, he said, the volunteer who delivers the meals may be the only person a senior comes in contact with on a regular basis.
“Often, they’re the lifeline for seniors,” Smythe said. “A volunteer may be the one to find a senior in trouble or communicate back to us that we really need to get more support for that senior and get other agencies involved.”
Sally Eggleston, chief marketing officer for Senior Connections, said it’s becoming more commonplace — especially among women. “Women are living longer than their husbands or if they divorce, they don’t remarry as quickly as men.”
A number of issues face the elderly who are alone. Transportation to doctors and the grocery store can be problematic. At some point, Eggleston said, it can become a safety issue.
A person could fall and not be found for hours or days. Are they taking their medication properly? Are they eating? Becoming increasingly isolated?
She said a volunteer recently went to an elderly client’s house to deliver a meal. He didn’t answer the door and the volunteer noticed mail had piled up. She contacted police who saw the man’s feet. He had been on the floor for a couple of days and is now doing fine.
“We have a need for social interaction with others,” said Eve Byrd, a nurse practitioner and executive director at the Fuqua Center for Late-Life Depression at Emory University.
“If you have limited interaction with other people because of a lack of mobilization or lack of transportation, there are going to be limited opportunities to be involved in your community and in meaningful activities. Whereas before you may have worked or taken care of children or family, your role changes,” she said. “It can be very stressful. It can exacerbate a depressed mood.”