I read an article in the Daily Mail about Juan Qi, a lonely 75-year-old man who ran a newspaper ad seeking an adoptive family. He was offering his pension in exchange for companionship. He said he would like to move into the home of a warm and caring family, or he would be willing to let someone live with him in his home rent free.
Mr. Qi lives in China, and there are certainly some cultural differences between that country and the U.S. However, isolation, loneliness, and depression are not at all uncommon with elderly people in the U.S.
Traditionally, young couples fell in love, got married and had children. The grandparents helped raise the children, and then, when they grew old or got sick, the roles reversed and the kids took care of the parents.
That may have been the norm in generations past but, for a variety of reasons, it’s a model that may not carry forward into the future. Not everyone has children. And even if you do, there’s no guarantee that they will be able or willing to help when you need it.
So, that raises the question: Who will take care of you when you’re old?
To start with, I believe it’s important for each of us to make provisions for our own care. The business end of planning for older age and disability isn’t easy, inexpensive, or fun, but it does allow you to stay in control of how your healthcare, finances and possessions will be managed throughout the final stages of your life.
Three things every responsible adult must have: A durable power of attorney, a will or a trust, and an advance directive
- A will or a trust provides instructions on how you want your possessions and money distributed after your death.
- A durable power of attorney appoints a person to manage your finances if you cannot manage them yourself.
- An advance directive outlines your wishes about life support and tube feeding and assigns a healthcare representative who is legally obligated to make sure your wishes regarding end-of-life healthcare are followed.
There’s one thing I believe most people SHOULD have, and that is long-term care insurance. There are a few logical-sounding reasons not to purchase it, such as:
- It’s expensive.
- I might pay for it for years and never need it.
- It might not cover all of the costs of care.
If you are very wealthy or very poor, those excuses might be legitimate. However, if you have accumulated some money and property that you’d like to pass on to your loved ones, long-term care insurance can protect those assets by covering a significant amount of the ever-rising costs of assisted living, memory care, and skilled nursing care.
What If You Don’t Have Kids? Will Someone Still Care for You?
The good news is that even if you don’t have children, it is possible to establish loving, lasting relationships with younger people who will want to care for you through the final stages of your life.
I had a very special relationship with my Dad’s first cousin that spanned more than 40 years.
She was born in 1919. She was the only girl to ever play on the men’s farm baseball team. She enlisted in the Women’s Army Corp shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed. After the war, she had a number of jobs and eventually settled into a career as an employee trainer for Safeway in Denver, Colorado. She married a golf pro when she was 40.
Her world was rocked three years later when he died of a brain tumor. With the insurance money he left her, she purchased a weekend retreat in Idaho Springs, Colorado. It was a little Victorian house that hung on the side of a mountain like an ornament on a Christmas tree.
My first visit to her house was in the spring of 1968. I was sixteen. All three of my siblings were in the service; two of them had received orders for Viet Nam. When my one brother finished Marine basic training, he flew home to Kansas on leave and we drove to Colorado to see my other two brothers, who were stationed at Ft. Carson.
My father’s cousin invited us to spend a weekend with her. She opened her home, her heart, and her liquor cabinet to us. And over the course of a few days, we formed a bond that grew continually stronger over the course of the next four decades.
Every visit to her house always included a work project, a delicious home cooked meal, a generous amount of alcohol, and long talks that went into the wee hours of the morning. For more than forty years, it was the place I went when I was faced with a difficult decision, when I had something to celebrate, or when I needed a safe place to grieve.
When she was 87, it became obvious that she was not going to be able to stay in her home alone much longer. I bought a plane ticket and flew to Colorado to see her. After a little gardening and a good meal, we settled into the chairs on her front porch that faced a trickling waterfall across the valley, and I suggested she consider moving to Oregon so I could be nearby if she needed help in the coming years.
She graciously thanked me, but told me that she’d already made arrangements with her sister’s son and daughter-in-law. She really surprised me when she said, “When you called and said you were coming for a visit, I thought you might be looking for a replacement for your mom.”
I said, “No! I came because I thought you might need a kid to take care of you!”
We both laughed, poured another glass of wine, and toasted the fact that we were both doing just fine. Neither one of us needed the other, but had it been necessary, we would have each done whatever was within our power to care for the other.
How to Build a Network of People Who Will Want to Care For You
My father’s cousin never remarried, and she never had children. But when her health started to decline, she was not alone.
Here are some of the reasons I loved being with her:
- She ran a “tight ship.” She was responsible in caring for her health, her finances, her home, and her community.
- She had no tolerance for laziness, sloth, or greed. However, she was always willing to lend an ear or give a hand up to people who were struggling with physical, mental or emotional challenges.
- She took a keen interest in others, and she found the good in every person or situation.
- When I was with her, she was fully present.
- She expressed appreciation for every phone call, card, gift, or visit.
- She never made me feel like I wasn’t doing or giving enough.
- She was always on my side. She celebrated all of my achievements and never criticized my failures.
She always made me feel like I was someone special. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. She had a gift of making everyone she met feel like they were interesting, intriguing, and important.
After she retired and moved to Idaho Springs full time, she became active in the Senior Center where she served as the volunteer supervisor of the center’s thrift store for 13 years. She loved challenging her friends to a game of dominos, and she played golf well into her eighties.
When it came time for her to move into a long-term care community, her nephew and his wife did take over, but only after elbowing their way through the long line of friends and neighbors who had also volunteered to take care of her. There were a number of people in Idaho Springs, who in spite of having no blood relationship to her, considered her to be family.
Fill an “Old Age Hope Chest” with Love, Compassion and Kindness When You’re Young
My dad used to say that life was like a hope chest. He said a person needs to put a lot of good things into your marriage and children while you’re young and healthy, so that you’ll have a large stockpile of love and kindness to take out when you’re old and need help.
I don’t know if Mr Qi, the man who ran an ad in the paper looking for a family to adopt him did that. He has a son who lives in a work dorm. He also has a granddaughter and some siblings who all live at a distance. Could they visit him? Would it be possible for them to be involved in his care? I have no way of knowing what his relationships were like with his family members when he was young. I don’t know how the cultural differences between China and the U.S. would impact his ability to make friends at work or in his community. I only know that he’s sad and lonely now.
My cousin lived in the U.S. in a small, connected community. She enjoyed excellent health and was financially stable. She had a lot of free time, which provided her with the opportunity to fill her “old age hope chest.” When she got lonely or bored, she’d cook a big pot of soup, call the manager of the Safeway store and invite the employees to come up in shifts and have lunch with her.
Idaho Springs has a population of approximately 1,700 people. It serves as the gateway to Colorado’s ski country. I’m pretty sure she knew most of the residents. She took an interest in all the visitors who stopped for a meal or a drink on their way up to or down from the ski resorts. When she met strangers on the street, she’d welcome them warmly. She’d ask them who they were and what brought them to town, and then she’d say, “We’re glad you’re here!”
When she died, her sister’s son and daughter-in-law purchased a bench for Idaho Springs in her memory. The inscription reads, “We’re glad you’re here!”
None of us can know what the future hold for us. We could outlive our spouses and friends. We may or may not have children who will be in a position to help with our care. But I believe if we follow my Dad’s advice and my cousin’s example,that there will be people who will show up when we are old to provide a little companionship, comfort and loving care when we need it. I truly believe that acceptance, kindness, and compassion are gifts that people remember and will generally be eager to return.
Elaine K. Sanchez is a caregiver speaker, author of the book, “Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver”, and co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com, a video-based caregiver support program. She also writes the blog, “Caregiver Help Word of the Day”. Elaine and her husband, Dr. Alex Sanchez, have developed a number of online courses including Caregiver Help: Sex & Dementia, Caregiver Help: Anger & Guilt and Caregiver Help Depression and Grief.