In Mount Lebanon, Pa., for instance, Celeste Seeman, who is divorced and childless and has lived alone for 25 years, has befriended neighbors in her apartment building. When one had surgery recently, Ms. Seeman, 65 and still working as an embroidery machine operator, walked the neighbor’s Chihuahuas, did her laundry and called her almost daily for weeks.
“I hope that what goes around comes around,” Ms. Seeman said. Because she has outlived her family, after caring for her parents until their deaths, there’s no remaining relative to provide similar help if she needs it herself.
“I’m frightened about it,” she acknowledged, then added, “You can’t dwell on stuff. It might not happen.”
A study of sole family survivors, the last members of the families they grew up in, found that, for unclear reasons, they were also disproportionately likely to lack spouses or partners and children, and thus were doubly vulnerable.
Of course, having family is no guarantee of help as people age. Estrangement, geographic distance and relatives’ own declining health can render them unwilling or unable to serve as caregivers.
Still, “our system of caring for the aged has functioned, for better or worse, on the backs of spouses and, secondarily, adult children,” said Susan Brown, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University and an author of the study of sole family survivors.