There’s a new and growing segment of voters politicians cannot afford to ignore.
Dubbed “elder orphans,” you might say this group had its genesis in the early 1970s, when Bob Dylan released his song, “Forever Young,” which spoke to a generation with its opening lyrics:
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
Those who graduated from high school that spring of 1974 when Dylan released his song today are 59 years old; those who were 22 and just graduating from college back then are 63. In his essay “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” novelist Tom Wolfe coined the term “‘Me’ decade,” to describe the 1970s. The term describes a general new American attitude towards atomized individualism.
Self- actualization was the goal of these baby boomers. The second-wave feminist movement in the United States, launched in the 60s carried over to the 70s, took a prominent role within society. The gay movement made huge steps forward, with the election to public office of political figures such as Harvey Milk and the advocating of anti-gay discrimination legislation. Many celebrities, including Freddie Mercury and Andy Warhol, also “came out” during this decade, bringing gay culture further into the limelight.
The 1970s was a also decade of progress and achievement for African-Americans. In 1970, the black population numbered 22.6 million, representing about 11 percent of the total U.S. population and accounting for nearly 90% of all minorities in the U.S. In the decade following the Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans fought through barriers in many areas to achieve the equality they rightfully deserved.
In just about every part of society, the 1970s were exciting, full of change and certainly interesting. Those who were young during this decade were certainly “building a ladder to the stars.” And perhaps because of this, they thought they indeed would be “forever young.”
With the advent of the Pill, rise of opportunities outside of the home, and changing views of society, many of the baby boomers decided that it was best to postpone certain things; after all, remaining “forever young” means the need to think about marriage and children can wait — right?
Wrong. This generation was one of the first that elected not to have children. And now, as they age, this significant — and growing — group have their own particular set of challenges anyone seeking elected office ignore at their own peril.
According to U.S. Census data, about one-third of Americans aged 45 to 63 are single — a 50% increase from 1980 —and nearly 19% of women aged 40 to 44 have no children, compared to 10% in 1980. I have more friends who have NO children than have. Whether it’s seeing other women raising kids in unsuccessful relationships, parents who’ve struggled with difficult children, or women who’ve lost part of their identity to their children, there are many external reasons my friends cite for their decision to forgo having children — or even getting or staying married.
So, what happens when “that age” comes upon you? When you no longer get up in the morning feeling you can slay the dragons — or at least run five miles before putting in eight hours at work and then dancing until the wee hours of the morning? I can remember getting off of work at 5:30pm in Munich, getting to my flat where all my roomies were also declaring they were too tired to go out — and then someone flipped on the music, and we would be downtown and looking fabulous after a power nap and a shower. I wish we could all be THAT “forever young.”
Unfortunately, we can’t stay forever young. And now, many of those who chose not to have children when they were young are now facing consequences; about 60% of nursing home residents do not have regular visitors because they have no “family.”
Those who bought the idea of impending doom due to the 1970s’ population explosion might be interested to know that U.S. fertility rates have reached another record low, at 62.5 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, according to the most recent government figures.
The confluence of these factors have given rise to a new category of the population dubbed “elder orphans.” As CNN reports:
These seniors are single or widowed; they have no children — at least in the area — and no support system. And they find themselves alone with no one to help care for them when they need it. About 22% of Americans 65 years and older are in danger of becoming, or already are, in this situation. As of 2012, there were 43 million people over 65 in the U.S., up from 35 million in 2002.
Many of the people in this sector of society may’ve had long marriages where they decided not to have children, but prepared financially and built up a network of friends, both in their age group and younger, to help them when they need it. One problem here: friends have families also, unless they too are alone, who might take priority over the so-called elder orphan.
This is a population that can utilize expensive healthcare resources, because they don’t have the ability to access community resources while they’re well but alone. From hospice to in-home services, the healthcare system is based on an assumption that family members will be there to shoulder the majority of care. When no family is available, elder orphans are created.
So why is it important to identify this group? Primarily because they vote and they’ve already been identified by those wishing to make sure that Obamacare stays in place — the group that will also seize upon any bold move to change so-called entitlements. Running on the issue of repealing Obamacare might not be the ticket — especially with this growing group. This IS part of the Hillary base. There’s little research on how these seniors will affect society and the medical system in the years to come. Hospital social workers and geriatricians already see elder orphans in their work every week. Elder orphans are hard on the medical system, since they’re often in crisis and need to seek help from costly hospital emergency rooms.
Having a spouse and children will not necessarily guarantee help and support in your senior years, and I’m not taking a position on that either way. However, it’s one factor to consider when formulating your political decisions. Because these are only the lyrics to a song:
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Elder orphans as a group are fearful of change and rightfully so. Even Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte from “Sex in the City” are now between the ages of 50 and 60 years old — it happens. Changes to health care, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other social “cradles” might be a no-go here because they’re unique in one aspect — they have few options. The one emotion that they do have, though, is fear — and rightfully so.