Eleanor Jones

Eleanor S.

Jones

When my grandmother passed away, everything was settled. Our family knew just about everything, from her finances to her burial wishes. It was a fairly easy medical, legal and financial process for her and her children, and even her grandchildren. The burden of aging and dying was eased through a steady stream of conversations and thoughtful, though difficult, decision-making in the family.

When she passed, we were able to focus on grieving and supporting one another. Our time was mostly spent talking about her amazing cooking and the loving legacy she left behind, and not bickering or fighting or questioning whether we made the right decisions and had done right by her.

We all know that advance care planning, having the conversation about our medical wishes when we can’t speak for ourselves, is important. It’s a critical first step when thinking about death and dying. But after this recent experience within my own family, my thoughts turned to those who might not have as supportive a system around them.

Solo agers, sometimes dubbed “elder orphans,” are a growing group of people in our community who often are unseen and unsupported.

Solo agers, adults around the age of 65 without living or dependable family and friends, often are socially or physically isolated. They are a growing and highly vulnerable population.

This at-risk population lives precariously in our society. Studies have shown that their situation often goes unrecognized by health care providers and the community. When they have a health crisis, it often spirals.

About 1 in 4 Americans age 65 and older, or 14.3 million people, lived alone in 2017, according to government data, up 31% from 10.9 million people in 2007.

So what can each of us do to help? Is there someone you suspect might be alone without support? What about a neighbor who never seems to have visitors? Recent studies show that even “weak-tie” acquaintances can help to increase others’ happiness and support overall well-being.

Experts say the first step is to help build community for the solo ager by cultivating a friendship. A cup of coffee and regular conversation can start alleviating loneliness and build the “village” that we know can make a difference. Distance can be overcome by a phone call, video chat, text message or email.

Reframing how we think about support also can be helpful. For example, a health care agent or financial executor does not need to be a family member; a trusted friend can take on this role.

If you identify as a solo ager, have you considered who might be your health care agent or executor? Have you considered arranging future legal guardianship for yourself? Are your health care wishes documented with your health care team in an advance directive? Making these decisions can be hard, but planning always pays off. And you don’t need to do it alone.

I challenge each of us to reach out to people in our lives who might be experiencing loneliness or isolation. It’s a new year and a new time to reconnect with family and friends. And if you have been postponing having hard conversation about advance care planning, Honoring Choices Virginia is here to help you.

As a 501©3 nonprofit organization, the mission of Honoring Choices Virginia is to mobilize communities, engage health care providers, convene groups and train advocates to encourage and implement thoughtful advance care planning.

We are proud to work with dozens of faith communities, civic groups and health care providers in the greater Richmond and Tri-Cities region to ensure that every Virginian has access to quality advance care planning that is honored in the delivery of care.

Start the conversation with us. And let us help you start the conversation with the people in your life.

Eleanor S. Jones is director of Honoring Choices Virginia, an affiliate nonprofit of the Richmond Academy of Medicine.

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