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Building a safety net: Who speaks for 'orphan' boomers and who can't?

Published: Monday, Sept. 3 2012 6:18 a.m. MDT

Marsha Wallace holds her dogs, Grace and Millie.

Family photo

Marsha Wallace broke her foot during a holiday and couldn't reach friends by phone. She drove through her urban neighborhood, hoping to spot someone she knew who could help her into the house. A neighbor was having a party in his front yard and helped her.

Situations like this one are not uncommon for a growing demographic of Americans: single baby boomers who haven't married and don't have children to look after them if they need help. With her single friends, Wallace, 61, of Alexandria, Va., said the conversation sometimes turns to personal safety nets. When it comes to caregiving as one grows older, a spouse is the first line of defense, but they aren't married. Next up are kids. She doesn't have those, either.

"My single friends and I talk to each other about this with a little bit of panic," Wallace, a retired physician, told the Deseret News. "We talk about whether we should call each other and check on each other. I have nephews and a niece, but I can't count on them as my safety net. They're too far away and so are my siblings."

She's not alone and her concern is not unique. Data from the American Community Survey in 2009 showed that one-third of adults 45-63 are unmarried. Many of them are divorced and have children, but one in three single boomers never married.

Analysis by Bowling Green State University's National Center for Family and Marriage Research recently noted "repercussions" to aging alone: 1 in 5 single boomers lives in poverty compared to just 5 percent for those who are married. They are twice as apt to be disabled, less likely to have health insurance and less often have robust safety nets. Most are younger, female and nonwhite, putting them at economic disadvantage when it comes to providing for themselves.

A 2008 AARP-Focalyst survey estimated 8 million boomers never married. Experts sometimes refer to those who must craft support systems with friends, associates and sometimes hired help as "orphan boomers."

When Ellie Pasimenti was winding down in her 80s in assisted living in Salt Lake City, her daughter Jane and son-in-law Ren Willie took on caregiving and decision-making roles. They visited and comforted and encouraged through the move to increasingly more care and less independence until she died. They are now missionaries in Italy.

This sort of relationship between aging parents and their children is something Janice Sellers of Oakland, Calif., thought she'd have one day. But she's 50, never married, has no kids and is unsure what her safety net will look like if she has an illness or emergency.

Borrowing a voice

"The safety net is something I have been concerned about for several years," said Sellers, a professional genealogist who also works for a transit agency in the San Francisco area. That job provides health insurance. The question of who would speak for her in an emergency or take on her care — or at least its oversight — is harder.

"I rely on a a few friends in the area to help me when something happens," she said. "I maintain contact and good relations with my siblings, who live on the other side of the country. I know that there is a very real possibility I might have to move to live near one of them.

"It isn't a very cohesive plan, but it's what I have. Hitting this age and being alone is not what I expected."

John Brugliera of West Lebanon, N.H., never married and has no children. His safety net "has several holes. As I've worked steadily for almost 35 years now, I am expecting some money back from Social Security — Uh, if there's anything left, of course," he added. At 51, he has modest retirement savings and figures he'll work past age 65.

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