No Spouse, No Children: ‘Solo’ Seniors Entering Retirement on their Own

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Planning for retirement typically includes provisions for how loved ones can look out for the interests of their aging relatives. But for more than one-fifth of the Baby Boom generation who are now reaching retirement age, there will be no loved ones. No spouse, no children, no close relative. These “solo agers,” as they have been called, face the challenging but essential task of making other arrangements for their own care.

Several important demographic changes are driving this trend. First, Baby Boomers on average have far fewer children than the previous generation. Those born between 1946 and 1964 were in families with an average of four children. But when they started their own families, the average was only two. Many Boomers, far more than in earlier generations, had no children at all. That means, of course, that far fewer younger family members are available to be caregivers or advocates for aging parents.

Another important trend is related to the radically different status of Boomer women compared to their elders. With professional career opportunities opening up in the 1960s and afterward, almost 20 percent of women in the postwar generation remained childless, most often by choice. The more highly educated the woman, the less likely she was to become a mother.

We can speak to this from one of our client’s situation. Our client had three sisters. In the next generation, our client had three children. His oldest sister had only one child, the next had three, and the youngest had none. In just one generation, they went from an average of four children to less than two. Now, in our client’s next generation, only his children have children; none of the other four cousins do.

Some numbers directly related to the trust business shed even more light on this trend. Our client’s father set up a perpetual trust that will be disbursed after the last of his seven grandchildren dies. Going back just one generation, our client’s grandfather had a similar trust. It was disbursed just last year, when the last of his grandchildren – our client – died at the age of 86. The total number of beneficiaries from that trust exceeded thirty people, mostly distant cousins. That gives a pretty good idea of how family structures changed in just a single generation.

Two other important societal trends mean many of the currently retiring generation have no partners. Soaring divorce rates – up to half of late Twentieth Century marriages did not last – and the increasing acceptability of remaining unmarried combined to leave significant numbers of Boomers as singles.

One study ten years ago found that more than a third of adults were unmarried. Among the Baby Boom generation, nearly three in five were divorced and fully a third had never married. Only 10 percent of the single boomers were widowed, although that number has undoubtedly risen in the decade since.

All these trends – fewer children, many childless people, many unmarried people – combine in something of a perfect storm, aggravated by one other factor. Even when a retiree has children, chances are they live far away, across the country and even around the world. And that, of course, leaves them unable to provide the regular support their aging parents may come to need.

Gerontologists who have considered this predict that between a quarter and a fifth of Baby Boomers may end up with no family caregivers at all.

So, what is a “solo ager” to do?

Many Boomers are still in that “young elderly” category, in which their health is good, their energy and funds seem inexhaustible, and their chief concerns are finding rewarding ways to spend their retirement. But inevitably, health can decline, energy fade, and full independence may no longer be possible.

The stakes are high. While many people are able to successfully “age in place,” isolation is often a serious problem. It can be psychologically harmful, and presents physical dangers, too. Whether from frailty, dementia, or both, the risk of accidents or medical emergencies inevitably grows as the years go by.

There are solutions, of course. Last month we wrote about the important practice of shared housing or co-living. That’s a way for elderly persons to minimize isolation by living in close proximity to others, whether related or not. That article can be found here:

One solution is absolutely essential, regardless of living arrangements. That is to have a trusted, and trustworthy, person or persons who can represent a “solo ager’s” interests when they can’t do so themselves. Space doesn’t permit elaborating on the various aspects of this, which include such roles as health care power of attorney, power of attorney for finances, investment advisor, emergency contact, and custodian for essential documents such as wills, trusts, living wills and the like.

When family members aren’t available to fill any of those roles, trained professionals are. Whether it be an attorney, a trust officer, or a team of specialists, professional experts can also help ensure that the solo ager’s wishes are well documented and that those vital documents are up to date and accessible in an emergency.

However well supported a single elderly person may be, odds are the time will come that independent living isn’t possible any more. That gets, finally, to the matter of who will oversee arrangements such as assisted living and, possibly, nursing home care. It’s a sad reality that not all facilities are well managed, and not all staffers are well trained, qualified or even kind. So even when a solo ager makes the move to institutional living, it’s still important to have an advocate. That person monitors the quality of care and ensures that everything is actually operating as advertised.

If you are a single person approaching or already in retirement, and don’t have family members as a potential support system, it’s a good idea to consult with professionals who can step in as both advisor and advocate. The experts at Old North State Trust can advise you on such essentials as living wills, health care arrangements, and investment options to help ensure that your retirement is happy, safe, and satisfies your needs and wishes.

Old North State Trust, LLC (ONST) periodically produces publications as a service to clients and friends.  The information contained in these publications is intended to provide general information about issues related to trust, investment and estate related topics.  Readers should be aware that the facts may vary depending upon individual circumstances.  The information contained in these publications is intended solely for informational purposes, is proprietary to ONST and is not guaranteed to be accurate, complete or timely.