Older Women Living Alone

by Joan Blumenfeld, MS, LPC

It is a sad truth that most elderly women end up living alone in their later years. Eighty-year-old Lauren was no exception.

She had been married for many years and divorced for almost as long, and though her life companion died several years before I met her, Lauren was blessed with a rich, full life.

She nurtured close relationships with her children, her family, her friends and colleagues, and she treasured her independence and freedom. Still remarkably healthy, Lauren was in charge of her money, making her own decisions about how to spend it or save it, without having to account to anyone. She planned vacations and traveled to suit her interests. Her time was her own. She made social engagements with the people she liked to be with. She selected the TV programs she wanted to watch, and she planned meals to suit her own timing, tastes and appetite.

When she felt lonely on occasion, Lauren was resourceful — she called a friend or went to a movie by herself. In order to avoid being alone on holidays, she organized a cheerful gathering of friends. On quiet weekends, she made popcorn and picked a movie to watch from her ever-present Netflix queue. And there were always good books to read and work waiting on her desk.

Life was good.

And yet, Lauren still felt an undercurrent of worry, a small frisson of fear. What would happen, she wondered, when the inevitable life-threatening medical event occurred that sooner or later overtakes us all? What if she fell and couldn’t get up? What if she became ill and needed to be hospitalized? What if she had a heart attack or stroke while alone at home? What if she needed care and there was no one there to take care of her?

What then?

Her devoted children would, of course, jump in and organize her care. But none of them lived close enough to be first responders. So who would call the ambulance? Who would stay with her in the ER? Who would give her medical history to the ER staff if she were unable to do that herself? Worrisome thoughts, all!

Anxiety is a good driver of solutions, and it prompted Lauren to consider exactly how she might handle such emergencies. So, in her typical problem-solving fashion, she grabbed the bull by the horns and put into place a few strategies that calmed some of her fears:

  1. Lauren got a response-pendant system. She wore the pendant much, if not actually all, of the time, and it gave her some comfort knowing that when she pushed the button, emergency services would respond.
  2. She had a lockbox with a key inside placed by her apartment entrance, so emergency personnel could get in without needing the time or effort to break down her heavy apartment door.
  3. She arranged for a Geriatric Care Manager (in this case, me) to be notified when there was an emergency. I could immediately step in to meet her at the emergency room, communicate with her children, and establish whatever care response was necessary.
  4. She got her legal documents in order and made sure that her children had copies. This included updating her will, assigning a Durable Power of Attorney, appointing a Health Care Proxy (someone to make medical decisions if Lauren is not able to do so herself), and any specific directives regarding end-of-life decisions. She also got her estate planning in order. (All of these procedures are best handled with the help of an Elder Law Attorney, and should not be undertaken on your own without legal guidance.)
  5. She signed Advance Directives (also known as a Living Will) and gave clear instructions to her children and doctor regarding her wishes in terms of end-of-life care and permissible interventions. She repeated her mantra frequently (and only partly facetiously): “Keep me comfortable, give me a glass of wine, play some Mozart, and LEAVE ME ALONE!”
  6. She posted a list of emergency contact phone numbers, including friends who could be counted on and pet sitters for her dog.

With all this in place, Lauren’s fears subsided significantly, but not entirely. She did all she reasonably could, and there was some comfort in that fact, but Lauren had to learn to accept a degree of uncertainty regarding future medical emergencies. Just like every other human being who is lucky enough to live a long life.

Pearl of Wisdom: Older people living alone need to have some strategies in place for dealing with medical emergencies before they happen. Families can generate a plan together, which can alleviate some anxiety for all.

Joan Blumenfeld, MS, LPC is a Geriatric Care Manager in private practice in Fairfield County, CT. For information visit www.joanblumenfeld.com. © Joan Blumenfeld 2012

Comments are closed.