When one hears the word “orphan,” generally images of a child without parents come to mind. But there is a growing population of another kind of orphan in our society. Currently, one-quarter of Americans over 65 are at risk of becoming orphan seniors – individuals who have no children, spouse or other family to take care of them as they age.

Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at North Shore-LIJ Health System, conducted a study that shows the number of orphan seniors is growing and will continue to grow. According to U.S. census data, one-third of Americans between the ages of 45 and 63 are single, which is a 50 percent increase from 1980. Also, 19 percent of women age 40 to 44 are childless, compared with 10 percent in 1980.

Divorce rates are also growing, especially the number of “gray divorces.” Divorce rates for Americans over the age of 50 have doubled since 1990 and more than doubled for those over the age of 65, according to Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, sociologists at Bowling Green State University. That means one-quarter of divorced Americans are 50 or older, and nearly 1 in 10 are 65 or older.

“It seems that, with increasing longevity and the trend toward having fewer children and families being fragmented, that this risk of aging alone is increasing,” Carney said.

Even though their numbers are growing, there is still only a small amount of research on orphan seniors and the issues they face. These seniors are not only isolated – they also deal with growing health problems. Many are affected by dementia, and have no one to help them make decisions about their healthcare.

There is little known about how orphan seniors will affect the medical system in the future. Currently in the United States, 85 percent of seniors who need care are helped by relatives; only 5 percent of seniors reside in nursing homes, and the rest are in assisted-living or other facilities. Kenneth Brummel-Smith, chairman of the Department of Geriatrics at Florida State University, said most in-home and hospice care relies on family members as the primary caregivers.

“All the basic assumptions of these kinds of services for the elderly fall apart when you have a bigger cohort of people without caregivers,” Brummel-Smith said.

He predicts that the combination of longer life expectancy and increasing smaller families will impact nursing home capacity. Of the 9.8 million seniors nationwide who live alone, most are able to remain self-sufficient because of the assistance of family members, he said. Without families to help, many seniors could be prematurely placed in nursing homes.

Carney said orphan seniors are already hard on the medical system because they are often forced to seek out costly emergency help in a crisis.

“We’re seeing individuals who are going to tax the healthcare system,” Carney said. “By highlighting this issue, identifying these vulnerable individuals earlier and helping them make a plan, we can potentially decrease use of high cost health care and make better use of community resources.”

She said the best way to prevent this and prepare for possibly becoming an orphan senior is to start making plans early. Single adults in their 50s and 60s should look into long-term financial care planning, as well as creating an advance healthcare directive that states your future healthcare wishes and names an agent that can make decisions for you if you are unable to.

With growing numbers and limited research available, orphan seniors could become more isolated and forgotten by their communities. Carney said it is a population that is “hidden right before us.”

“The first challenge is one of awareness that this is a vulnerable population,” Carney said.

Amada Senior Care works to educate communities to make sure these orphan seniors do not go unnoticed, and also helps these seniors access the resources they need as they age. Many of these seniors may have the resources for care but need help navigating through the process.

Amada Senior Care Advisors can assist orphan seniors with financial care options, like managing a long-term care insurance policy or applying for the Veterans Aid and Attendance benefit. Advisors can also help one decide what the best care option for each situation is. For those seniors who want to “age in place” at home, Amada provides in-home caregivers that are trained to help seniors with activities of daily living. For those who may need more specific medical care, Amada professionals also specialize in referrals for facilities such as nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

Orphan seniors may face difficult financial and medical decisions that are only made more difficult by the absence of family members. Amada’s team provides that much-needed support throughout those decisions, and works to find the best situation for each senior.

Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.