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Solo Agers Facing the Future Need a Network of Friends

With no close relatives to depend on, these older Americans look to community for caregiving support

triptych of David Fink, Stacy Davenport and Patricia Wood
Evan Jenkins; Lauren Justice; Ilana Panich-Linsman

Stacy Davenport says she began to worry about her future just before she turned 60.

“I was flipping out and talked to a friend about why I was anxious about 60,” she says. “If I get sick, I have nobody to take care of me.”

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The very next year — in 2018 — two minor strokes “woke me up to I’d better get my stuff in order.”

Stacy Davenport, 65, who runs a business based on Feng Shui and other energetic practices, poses for a portrait in her home.
Two minor stroke compelled Stacy Davenport to start making plans for her future.
Ilana Panich-Linsman

Davenport, a life coach in Austin, Texas, who is unpartnered and has no children, is among the 12 percent of the population age 50 and older who live alone. Often called “solo agers,” they may be widowed, divorced or never married.

Now 65, Davenport says her health scares forced her to act rather than just think about what’s ahead. She named a niece in Florida as her executor and beneficiary, as well as granting her medical power of attorney and adding her to Davenport’s bank account.

“My friends have families. They’ve got a spouse. They’ve got children,” Davenport says of her friends in Austin and nearby communities. Although they drove her to the grocery or doctor appointments following her strokes, she’s aware of the pitfalls associated with relying on friends who have other obligations.

More solo adults needing support

Yet solo agers are a growing group, with more never married, unpartnered and childless adults in the population. And, because adults with children may effectively be solo if their adult children live far away or they have a child with a disability who can’t care for them, or they are estranged, more aging adults are looking elsewhere for support. Preparing for life’s later stages means tackling issues such as finances and estate planning, health care and future housing needs, as well as anticipating health decline and creating end-of-life directives. Experts recommend that solo agers who weathered the pandemic’s isolation consider expanding their social circles and making younger friends to allay fears about their fate.

This country’s increasingly diverse population also impacts solo aging.

“Members of the LGBTQ community have higher a frequency of being solo agers and not having children,” says geriatrician Ashwin Kotwal, who has a clinical practice at San Francisco VA Medical Center and is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

He says the prevalence of solo agers appears to be less among Hispanic, Black and Asian communities, which have traditionally relied more on extended family.

“Some of the nonwhite communities are more likely to live in these extended family households. It’s just a little bit less frequent for solo aging,” he says.

A report from the National Alliance for Caregiving released in November 2021 shows how caregiving experiences differ, with the highest prevalence of caregiving among Blacks, at more than 28 percent, followed by Hispanics at nearly 22 percent. Prevalence among non-Hispanic whites and Asians is just under 20 percent.

Research he coauthored that was published last year in the journal Frontiers in Psychology also found friendship benefits.

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“When older adults place low importance on friendship, they may be less likely to receive emotional and practical help from friends — leaving them exposed, with no buffers, to the negative emotions stemming from changes in their lives (for example, declines in physical health),” the study says.  

David Fink (62) photographed in his home in Chicago, Illinois on Sept. 23, 2022.
David Fink’s extensive volunteer work has a side benefit: friends of all ages.
Evan Jenkins

Befriending people of all ages and stages

David Fink, 62, of Chicago, seems to collect friends, which he believes is partly because of his career owning a theater. Now a live-performance promoter, he says “people in the arts connect with all levels of society,” which crosses boundaries from socioeconomic to ethnic to age.

“People keep adopting me,” Fink says. “If you live your life with a positive attitude and do interesting things, people befriend you.”

Fink says he’s also developed friendships with younger adults due to his varied interests. He’s involved in storytelling classes and volunteer activities, including an AIDS garden and serving on the board of an arts organization an hour away in Michigan.

Because his mother had health issues that began before she turned 30, Fink says he’s planned for his aging future and has granted his medical power of attorney to extended family members rather than his siblings, who he believes wouldn’t have the “detachment necessary” for decision-making.

“You can’t necessarily rely on your immediate nuclear family,” says Louise Hawkley, a principal research scientist at NORC, an independent, nonpartisan research institution at the University of Chicago. “It’s important to have friends all along on one’s life course.”

An AARP survey of solo agers who are 50 and older conducted by NORC and released last year found that just one-third of respondents have someone to help manage their household or handle daily expenses; 77 percent reported little or no planning for living assistance as they age.

Among the organizations trying to help older adults is the nonprofit Village to Village Network, a membership-based national group that encourages groups of neighbors in a designated area to bond together and care for each other so that all can successfully age in their communities. Each virtual village is different, but most offer educational programs and social events, transportation to medical appointments, vetted service providers and other support systems for members. Currently, there are 280 villages, with another 80 in development.

“A lot of people think solo agers have nobody around. Some have adult children who are not in the picture,” says Barbara Sullivan, executive director. “A lot of the choices are building your caregiving team — who is going to be the person to be responsible.”

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Patricia Wood caretakes for her daughter Kimberly, who has neuro degeneration with brain iron accumulation, at home in San Diego, Calif. Sept. 8, 2022.
Patricia Wood, the primary caretaker of her adult daughter, Kimberly, made a caregiving ‘pact’ with her group of supportive friends.
Lauren Justice

‘A little pact’

Patricia Wood, 67, of San Diego, has been divorced more than 30 years. She’s thought about the future because her 36-year-old daughter Kimberly was diagnosed as a child with neurodegeneration with brain iron accumulation (NBIA), a group of neurologic disorders that has left her “100 percent dependent,” without the ability to speak or move voluntarily.

Wood is founder and president of the NBIA Disorders Association, which she started in 1996. She’s planned for her daughter’s future by creating a special needs trust fund for Kimberly’s care, and Wood says she’s also discussed with her daughter’s father who might be able to care for Kimberly should Wood become unable. Wood has been the primary caregiver, a role shared with her ex-husband.

However, a few years ago, she and six close friends who live in the San Diego area “made a little pact that we’ll be here for each other and be some backup care for each.”

“Of the seven of us, only one is married and rest are single,” Wood says, explaining that one has an adult child an hour away, three never married and are childless and the other two are divorced, with children outside California.

Although Wood has a close-knit support group, many solo agers don’t.

“We have a growing population of older adults and with more over 75, more are going to be lonely,” says Hawkley, who is collecting data on how those who were age 57 and older in 2015 are faring now, including their social networks and ways they connected during the past couple of years when isolation prevailed.

For solo agers without these family bonds, finding help is piecemeal, says attorney C. Grace Whiting, executive director of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys or NAELA, based in Vienna, Virginia.

“There is no unified national system for people who are aging alone,” she says. “You’re looking at volunteer and community-based services.”

Whiting says instead of worrying about what the future will hold, view the planning process as a way to have agency over your future life. It’s creating a plan to “maintain your dignity and autonomy,” she says.

Chopik adds that it’s never too late to seek new friendships, as his research finds friends are a plus at whatever life stage you’re in.

“You might feel embarrassment that you don’t have extended family or that many friends,” he says, but “you don’t really need super-long-term friends to benefit your happiness and well-being.”

Making Friends Later in Life

Many solo agers say they plan to look to friends for assistance, but what if your circle of pals has grown smaller — or is nonexistent? Perhaps you recently moved to a new location or are more of an introvert. “Friendships don’t happen overnight,” says Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer for AARP Services Inc., but these relationship are critical to our overall health and happiness. She shares some friend-making tips:​ ​

• Be intentional. “You need to be intentional and be willing to take the risk and invest the time,” she says. A recent study found it takes about 50 hours to make a casual friend; 90 hours to make a real friend; and about 200 hours to create a close friend. Chopik adds that “people have viewed friendships as optional and that family was these enduring bonds” but that now we realize “the role that friends play has been underestimated and plays an important part as we grow older.”​ ​

• Try volunteering. It’s the perfect way to meet other people who share a common interest, Yeh says. Other ideas: Join AARP Experience Corps and tutor a student; start a book group; work at a local golf club; monitor online university courses (for free!) and get to know professors and fellow students.​ ​

• Reach out. “Let’s also do it in reverse. If you’ve got a neighbor or somebody you know that lives alone … reach out.” Bake cupcakes and bring the extras to someone on your hall or street. “Those are just little ways to spark a conversation,” Yeh says.​