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

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 2:58 a.m. MDT

Marsha Wallace holds her dogs, Grace and Millie. (Family photo) 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."

Jane Willie steadies her mother, Ellie Pasimeni, as she rises from her wheelchair in her room at St. Joseph's Villa in Salt Lake City in 2008. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Jane Willie steadies her mother, Ellie Pasimeni, as she rises from her wheelchair in her room at St. Joseph's Villa in Salt Lake City in 2008. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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."

Janice Sellers is a single baby boomer who worries a bit about her safety net, should she become ill. (Family photo) Janice Sellers is a single baby boomer who worries a bit about her safety net, should she become ill. (Family photo)

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.

"My feeling about all this? Somewhere in the middle," he said in an email. "While I don't have a firm safety net in place, I do have several options for stringing something together. Am I concerned? Not at the moment. I'm in a secure job and my health is very good, so I don't think I'll need to worry for the time being. Unless something changes."

Like Wallace, Sellers experienced a medical issue that turned into a crisis because she didn't have support built in. When she had shoulder surgery, she had to fly in friends and relatives for days at a time to help her.

She has lots of friends, but finding someone who's not related that you like well enough and trust well enough to ask to take serious responsibility for you should crisis come is not an easy thing, she said. She arranged that once with a friend, who later moved too far away to make it practical.

State rules

People often put off paperwork and decision making, sometimes until it's too late to speak for themselves. The healthcare system knows that and compensates as best it can. Adult children or spouses are generally recognized as representing someone who can't speak for himself. States have rules of inheritance that cover what happens if someone dies without a will or obvious heirs. But one-size-fits all rules may not always reflect what a single individual wants, warned K.T. Whitehead, a certified elder-law attorney in San Antonio. "The thing with being single is trying to make sure it's formally stated what a single person would want."

"There's a whole different set of concerns with these folks," said attorney Eric Barnes, president of the Estate Planning Council for Weber-Davis counties and former chairman of the elder-law section of the Utah Bar. Someone without doting relatives could end up with a private company providing oversight services. If one is destitute, a public guardian could be needed. "That's not necessarily what a client would like," he said. Then again, "if you have the money, it's nice sometimes to get a professional to do it. They have licenses at stake and usually do a good job."

At the very least, Whitehead said, one needs a health care directive that names a spokesman and sets limits. Often overlooked is a release for medical records that satisfies privacy rules so the information can inform decision-making.

Stepping up

Even with family, there's no guarantee relatives will step up or do as they've been asked. People who haven't thought about the issues in advance can be "abused both financially and sometimes physically," Barnes said. "Kids may be abusive or have a sense of entitlement. 'It will be mine in the end and, besides that, when I was potty training at age 2, you didn't do it right.' Sometimes a parent was not such a great parent or the kid not such a great kid. You should think about it while you're still competent."

Most people can find someone who is willing to step in, Barnes said. "People as they age realize their vulnerability and start to look around, to think about these issues. They find a friend or someone. But each year I have probably three cases where this becomes critical."

"I'm socially active. I have lots of friends," said Wallace. "We talk about it, then we go, 'Oh well,' and focus on the things we have to do today or tomorrow. I hope I can afford help when I need it. Right now, I am relatively healthy and active. I don't want to act like an elderly person who needs checking on. But I know if I tripped and fell down the steps, I could be sprawled for days before I was found."

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com Twitter: Loisco

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