Adult children do many things for their aging parents, including helping them find a senior community. But what about “Solo Agers”? This term was coined by author and solo aging expert Dr. Sara Zeff Geber to describe those seniors who find themselves aging alone. Dr. Geber wrote the 2018 book, Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers.
According to Geber, “A significant number of Boomers will not have adult children to help them with care or relocation if living independently becomes difficult or impossible.” She cites geriatric specialist Maria Carney, MD, and colleagues, who determined in 2016 that “approximately 22% of older Americans had no one to turn to in a crisis.”
In a recent article in the International Council on Active Aging’s The Journal on Active Aging, Geber points out that, while the COVID pandemic has brought into national focus the devastating isolation of those aging alone, it also made clear that there are opportunities for senior housing communities and the aging services industry to provide for the needs of solo agers. The important first step is to understand this cohort, and their unique needs.
“I noticed many of my contemporaries were starting to spend huge chunks of time and energy helping to care for their aging parents,” said Geber. “They were chauffeuring their parents to appointments, shopping for their groceries and other essentials, monitoring their medications, arranging for home repairs, and spending considerably more time on the phone and in person with them than they had in the past.” That got Geber wondering. “Who is going to do all the above for those of us without children? More questions arose. How many of us are there? What are our options? And how should we prepare?”
Among the differences she noticed that set Solo Agers apart:
- Solo Agers (women and men) tend to be more highly educated and to have made a good living over their lives, making them excellent candidates for higher-end senior living.
- Congregate living offers the advantage of built-in community, to help Solo Agers make social connections, and avoid isolation and loneliness.
- Choosing independent living that is connected to communities that also provide options for higher levels of care can provide peace of mind to Solo Agers, who want to prepare for greater care needs in the future.
- Many seniors find comfort in moving closer to adult children or grandchildren. Solo Agers may likewise choose proximity to loved ones, who may be extended family or friends.
- Solo Agers have typically been living independently, as “masters of their universe” their whole lives, and will want choices for how they live that allow them to continue to learn, develop, and pursue healthy lifestyles.
What are the challenges for senior living communities? According to Geber, “the first hurdle will be selling the concept.” This involves knowing how to sell directly to seniors who may approach the community alone, and make their decisions without the assistance, encouragement or “cajoling” of adult children.
The second hurdle is to develop models of housing that appeal to Solo Agers. One good example, Geber suggests, is to build residences, such as Garden Spot Village’s Cooperative Living House, that house a small number of unrelated roommates. The home provides private bedrooms and baths for the residents and shared communal space. Roommates in these residences maintain some privacy and independence, but they also have the opportunity to develop friendships and even family-like connections, and to provide one another with mutual support, much like what happened in ”The Golden Girls” TV show from the 80s).
Another example is cohousing. Geber describes it as “generally a grassroots effort by individuals who want to create a way to live together in an intentional community.” According to Geber, “Senior cohousing is one of the fastest-growing segments of the cohousing movement.” It’s also “extremely attractive to Solo Agers.”
According to Geber, the window of opportunity has arrived. Boomers have already begun to retire, and the number of Boomers who are also Solo Agers is large and growing. “Many of these individuals will have no real need to continue ‘aging in place’ in their single-family homes,” she said. “They will remain there, however, unless senior living communities demonstrate a viable and attractive alternative—one that meets Solo Agers’ needs to maintain their social networks and participate actively in their communities.”