As age-related health issues make it tougher to get around and stay independent, most seniors at some point will rely on a family member for help. Usually, one or more adult children will step in to provide or arrange for care when that day comes.
But what about those who never had children? The folks referred to as "childless" or more recently, "childfree." Who will care for them when they're no longer able to care for themselves? Author and retirement planning expert, Dr. Sara Zeff Geber calls these seniors "solo agers," and is working to raise awareness about the need for this cohort to plan for their golden years.
Geber says she often sees solo agers who seem to be in denial about the need to plan for their long-term living and care arrangements. "That led me to the realization that people needed some guidance for what to do for themselves when they don't have that safety net."
She says she's noticed growing awareness of the importance of long-term care planning among childfree seniors, especially as more and more of them provide care for their own aging parents. "People are spending time and resources and sometimes opening up their homes to their own aging parents, and they're seeing the result of people living so much longer today," Geber says.
Yet, with higher-than-ever life expectancies and a graying Baby Boomer population, an AARP study points to a growing gap between the number of seniors who will need care and the available supply of family caregivers. According to the study, there were seven potential caregivers for every person 80 years and older in 2010, but that ratio is expected to drop to four to one by 2030, and to three to one by 2050.
Among baby boomers, the rate of solo agers is almost 20 percent. With more people now choosing to forgo parenthood altogether, the number of so-called "solo agers" is only projected to rise, underscoring the need for a greater emphasis on planning for a future without adult children to call on.
Advantages of being a "solo ager"
Despite the prevailing wisdom, there are plenty of advantages to being childfree as an older adult. Since childfree seniors never had to shoulder the considerable costs associated with childrearing -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest estimates put the average cost at about $245,000 per child from birth to age 18, not including higher education costs -- they've had decades to save more of their income for their later years.
"That money may have been growing since their 20s or 30s rather than being spent on raising children," Geber says.
She points out that in many cases, these older adults have had more time and space to form strong bonds with friends and to build up a network of close, non-familial relationships. At the same time, many childfree seniors have also been able to develop close relationships with nieces and nephews or other younger relatives.
Once they hit retirement age, childfree seniors typically have more freedom of choice when it comes to where they'll live. While many parents choose to live close to adult children and grandchildren in their later years, "solo agers" don't have progeny to bind them to any one place. Nonetheless, plenty of older childfree adults opt to remain in the communities near long-established networks of friends and acquaintances, Geber notes.
Drawbacks for Childfree Seniors
A clear disadvantage of being a childfree senior is the absence of a built-in safety net to care for you when you need assistance. While not everyone will care for their parents later in life, most do step in to provide some form of help in the event of a serious health issue, Geber notes.
The absence of adult children is perhaps most acutely felt when it comes to end-of-life planning and during the end of life itself. While childfree adults aren't necessarily alone in their last days, weeks and months, they won't have adult children to fall back on during that time.
"In the end, when people are dying, it's usually those grown kids at their side," Geber says. "That's a disadvantage for solo agers that never goes away."
Yet, when it comes to ensuring that your end-of-life wishes are respected, good planning can make up for most, if not all, of the gap left by the absence of adult children, says Geber.
Without the prospect of adult children to take them in or help them make decisions about housing in their later years, it's especially crucial that childfree older adults make decisions early about where they want to live later in life.
The same senior housing options that are available to older adults with children are often great choices for childfree seniors, too - from Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs), which allow residents to remain in the same community even after they require assistance with daily living routines, to assisted living communities, board and care facilities or nursing homes when higher levels of care are needed.
Another senior housing option that's gaining popularity is co-housing, an arrangement in which a group of seniors or multi-generational residents live in a community of homes specifically designed for aging adults' changing needs. Community members typically organize regularly scheduled shared activities, meals and events.
Meanwhile, others are opting to age in place with the help of in-home care. Growing numbers of those who choose to remain in their home are now joining what's known as the village movement, a membership-based network that connects neighbors and provides services such as transportation, yard work and home maintenance. The aim of these villages is to help older adults stay in their homes for as long as possible.
Planning is crucial
Advanced planning is key to ensure that long-term care and end-of-life preferences are honored, whether someone is a parent or not. But for those without adult children, this planning is even more crucial.
Part of that planning includes going to visit different types of senior housing (CCRCs, board and care homes, assisted living facilities, etc.) to get an idea of what might someday be the best fit for you, Geber says. For those who plan to age in place, she advises turning to services like Caring.com to learn about in-home care options.
With a clearer idea of the senior care arrangement you want, the next key piece of the puzzle is having conversations with loved ones (this might include nieces, nephews or other younger relatives you're close to, or it may mean close friends). Making sure your power of attorney and advance health directive documents are in order is also critical.
"The real key, says Geber, is to let people know what you want."
Dr. Geber also advises childfree seniors to consider the services of a fiduciary, a financial professional you authorize to act on your behalf. "You can put in the hands of a professional fiduciary the kinds of things you would expect your adult children to do," she notes.