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Elder Orphans, Part 2: What People Are Already Doing to Live Well in Later Life

In Part 1 on the topic of elder orphans, I talked through the actual risks of finding yourself, in your old age, ill and in need of help, but with no one to care for you. I used logic and data rather than hand-picking scare stories to frighten people into marrying and having kids, even if they know that life is not right for them.

For my forthcoming book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I traveled around the country asking people to show me their homes and tell me about their lives. I wanted to know if they had found their place, their space, and their people – their “lifespaces.” One of the chapters, “Lifespaces for the New Old Age,” is about the ways that people are living in their senior years. The subtitle of that chapter is, “Institutions Begone!” Resoundingly, my interviewees proclaimed that they did not want to end up in an institution.

Long before they might get to the point that they could no longer care for themselves, the people I interviewed were coming up with innovative ways to live their lives in defiance of the elder-orphan risk. Some do so by living with others. But many seniors want to live on their own, for as long as they possibly can. They are coming up with innovative ways to accomplish that, too.

Here is some of what I discovered in my research about how seniors are living – ways that are likely to protect them from becoming elder orphans, even if they are single and never had kids.

  • Some are sharing a home with other people. Their housemates could be friends or people they did not know very well when they first moved in together. Their goal, though, was not just to share expenses but to share their lives. You can think of that as the Golden Girls model of senior living.
  • Some are living in multigenerational households or sharing a home with siblings or other family members. This may sound like a lifespace from the past rather than a contemporary iteration, but there is something new about it. Whereas in the past, many seniors ended up with family by default (for example, living with a grown child after becoming widowed), because that was the expected thing to do, now people living in multigenerational or extended family households are doing so because they want to. It is their first choice, a thoughtful one, not an act of mindless compliance with an expectation or a norm. One other thing is new, too: Often people in these households want privacy as well as togetherness; they value some time and space of their own more than they may have in the past.
  • Some are living in neighborhoods that function as real, self-conscious, intentional communities. People in such neighborhoods may have homes of their own or they may live with others, but what’s important is that the people who live around them want to share their lives, which sometimes includes sharing a few meals or tending to the neighborhood. Cohousing communities are one example – including communities specifically for seniors – but there are other creative versions as well.
  • Some are living in 55 and older (or 62 and older) communities, or creating their own senior communities in RV parks or manufactured home communities or tiny house neighborhoods.
  • A few have become honorary grandparents at Hope Meadows, a heartwarming community of families devoted to caring for foster children and raising their children, including many they have adopted. The foster and adoptive parents are living among other such parents who really “get it” about the joys and challenges of their lives. The kids have clusters of playmates up and down the streets of their neighborhood. The kids and their parents have seniors who help them and love them, and the seniors have a whole community of people of all ages who love them back.
  • Other seniors have created a close community of two with a close friend, while staying in a home of their own. In one example, two single women share a duplex that is separated by their garages; that way, they both have privacy as well as sociability. In another, two widows live in houses right next door to each other. They, too, have their privacy, but see each other all the time.
  • Still others live truly solo, in homes that are not embedded in an intentional community or located next door to a close friend. Yet they, too, have access to any help they may need, by signing up for a local “Village” created specifically to help people stay in their own homes as long as possible. Villages offer rides and help with all sorts of tasks of everyday life, as well as opportunities to socialize for those who are interested.

In the CNN story on elder orphans, a professor of geriatrics is quoted as suggesting that seniors bring caregivers into their own homes when they need more help than Villages or other such arrangements can provide. It is a great suggestion, and several of the people I interviewed also had that possibility in mind. There are at least two challenges, though: Not everyone can afford to hire such caregivers. And, as MacArthur genius Ai-Jen Poo noted in her important book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, we don’t have nearly enough people available to provide the care that our aging population is going to require, and we don’t have the human and policy-based infrastructure to support our growing needs. But by writing her book and spreading the word, she is raising our consciousness and making it that much more likely that “what could feel like the beginning of an epic national crisis in care can in fact be one of our greatest opportunities for positive transformation at every level.”

[Note: Since this is my first time writing about my forthcoming book here at any length, I’d like to say a bit more about it. (If you are not interested, you can stop reading now.) How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, to be published on August 25, has a starred review from Kirkus, “awarded to books of exceptional merit.” It has also been named as one of 13 must-reads by the Sacramento Bee. (Others include the latest by a Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian and a few from celebrities such as Willie Nelson and Judd Apatow.) I’m going to try to post updates at this page of my website, and I also created a Facebook page for the book.]

Senior friends photo available from Shutterstock

Elder Orphans, Part 2: What People Are Already Doing to Live Well in Later Life

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2015). Elder Orphans, Part 2: What People Are Already Doing to Live Well in Later Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Jun 2015
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