‘Solo agers’ need to be prepared to reap benefits of a long life

by Jan Robbins

“Who’s going to sit by your bed when the time comes?” asks eldercare consultant Betty Burr. For solo agers, that question is a hard one to answer.

A solo ager is someone who does not have a spouse or children, or their children are geographically or emotionally unavailable, and there are no other family members close by, Burr said.

BettyBurr copy

 Betty Burr helps single seniors prepare for a long life. Courtesy photo.

According to The American Community Survey, a part of the U.S. Census, 30 percent of people age 65 or older live alone in San Francisco County.

A management trainer for most of her working life, Burr went back to school in her sixties to get a master’s degree in gerontology from San Francisco State University.

“After working as a mid-life transitional counselor, I found that solo aging was the vital issue for me,” she said. “I have a house with stairs, which might be a problem as I age.”

Burr now puts on seminars to help people like her plan for how they are going to get help when they need it.

“There are several areas of care that we all need to pay attention to, but for solo agers the challenges are greater,” Burr said at a recent seminar held at The San Francisco Village, a membership organization based in the Richmond District that helps older adults stay in charge of their lives.

Burr is 79.

“My mother, who lives in New York, is 104,” she said. “She’s hanging in there by a thread; what if I live that long?”

Like many people, Burr has friends and relatives, but they might not be a solution.

“I do have a brother I’m close to, but he lives in San Diego and I really don’t want to move there. I would miss the opera, ballet and theater,” she said.

“Also, my best friend became a grandmother and she doesn’t have the time to get together very often.”

At the seminar, Burr complimented the attendees on their “bravery” for facing vital aging issues. To encourage solo-agers to put the infrastructure in place for later life needs, she handed out a four-page planning tool, “solo-ager awareness 101,” and a one-page resource list.

“These things are traditionally handled by spouses or adult children,” Burr said.

The list includes various types of information, including:

• financial
• medical
• residential
• social
• legal
• transportation
• care management/caregiving

Burr recommends finding a team leader who can help the solo ager or delegate tasks that need to be performed, including estate planning, creating an advance health care directive and care management.

“If there is no one you know personally to lead your team, you can hire a fiduciary,” Burr said. A fiduciary representative is a person named in a private agreement or by a court to assume responsibility for solo agers’ medical, legal and financial matters.

For low-income people, there are agencies that can help, including On Lok and the Institute on Aging, Burr said.

“Middle income people who have a house, but little disposable income, are perhaps in the hardest spot,” she said.

Burr has empathy for people who do not have the finances to properly handle the demands of later life.

“My dream is to create a volunteer organization where people act as team leaders. And they, in turn, would have team leaders when their needs arise – something like the ‘pay it forward’ concept.”

It is vital for everyone to talk about the issues and do the work, Burr said, while reiterating what she has heard time and time again from retirement coaches:

“If it isn’t in writing, it’s not done; if you haven’t revised it in the last two to three years, it’s not done; If you haven’t shared it with your agent/advocate/proxy, it’s not done.”

Burr conducts in-depth workshops on solo aging at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, Foster City, once a month. For more information, she can be reached at (415) 602-0012 or at betty@transitionsteps. com.

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