older adults at a bench

Over a quarter of adults age 65 and older live alone in the U.S., and that percentage increases with age. While the older adult may have family who live nearby, many do not and may need to rely on friends or neighbors for assistance with various tasks to help them continue living at home. These tasks can range from companionship or grocery shopping to caring for them and taking them to medical appointments.

In the second part of this series, we share two stories about older adults who relied on non-family members for support.

Story #2: Barbara and Ron

Barbara and Ron were a married couple in their 80s, who lived in low-income senior housing. Ron had Alzheimer’s disease but was otherwise physically healthy. Barbara was much more physically frail but was cognitively sound. While they each had their own challenges, they were able to make it work for a time. Even though Ron had difficulty remembering things, he was able to cook and do some chores.

Over time, their living situation became more difficult. Barbara became depressed, as she was isolated and caring for her husband as his cognition worsened. The couple had a social worker who had been providing assistance. When the social worker realized they needed more help, she began looking for options among Barbara and Ron’s family and friends.

The social worker first met with Barbara and Ron’s son, but their relationship was estranged. He refused to care for them. When he did come to visit them, he was very resentful and told the social worker about his terrible childhood.

Next, the social worker met with Barbara and Ron’s granddaughter. The granddaughter moved in, and at first it seemed like she might be able to help. However, the social worker eventually found out that the granddaughter was homeless and was relying on her grandparents for shelter and money. The social worker also suspected that the granddaughter was stealing from Barbara and Ron, but was unable to prove it. The granddaughter continued to live with the couple.

The social worker also discovered that Barbara and Ron had designated a durable power of attorney – he was an acquaintance of theirs. Unfortunately, he was not reliable either and seemed to be mismanaging their finances.

older couples seated

While this was happening, Barbara asked the social worker for help in looking at other housing options. Both she and her husband were physically and mentally declining and needed much more support. The situation became even more complicated. The couple’s primary care physician told them that there was nothing wrong with them, only that this was normal as they got old. Many of the housing options that the couple qualified for would have separated Barbara and Ron, due to Ron’s higher level of care needed. Hearing all of this, Barbara was unsure of what to do and kept changing her mind.

Eventually, both Barbara and Ron were hospitalized due to dehydration and some other health concerns. They were both transferred to a skilled nursing facility, and then transitioned into assisted living. However, as their health conditions worsened, they were frequently back in the hospital and nursing facilities. Barbara eventually passed away during one of these transfers.

This is an extreme example of a situation where very few of the support system options seemed to work. While it is very common to have spouses support one another, it is important to think about others who could help as well. Thankfully, the social worker was able to keep an eye on Barbara and Ron, but there were limitations to what she could do. Experts in our community say complicated situations like this happen more frequently than we may realize. That is why it is so important to plan in advance as much as we can.

Names were changed for privacy reasons.

Read part 1 here.

For tips on how to help a friend, click here.
For tips on preparing for the future if you live alone, click here.

Thank you to Little Tokyo Service Center and Staci Toji for their assistance with these articles.