Home alone: Life as an elder orphan during COVID


Last week marked a somber milestone, when the U.S. crossed 500,000 deaths due to COVID-19. I spent a few hours trying to identify trends from those who died. What did these deaths have in common? The data show the virus hit every race, ethnicity, demographic group, and socioeconomic stratum. Yet the data also reveal a cruel assault on seniors, where those 65 and older have accounted for 75 percent of all COVID-19 deaths. 

As deaths among the elderly rose last winter, the panic and stress among my peers, friends, and family members became all-consuming. Anyone with an elderly relative was desperate to get them vaccinated. Right now, the Massachusetts vaccine rate hovers at 20 percent (with 5.3 percent of the population receiving their second dose). Like many, I felt powerless, spending eight weeks trying to get my mom vaccinated, setting up four computers, waking up at 5 am trying to get her in the queue. Like many resilient seniors living alone, she was calm, saying, “It’s OK, Meg, my turn and time will come.” She received her first shot two weeks ago. I made a pact to help other seniors — even total strangers — get in the queue for vaccination. Those on my list had one thing in common: They live alone. They are all part of a growing group of seniors sometimes referred to as elder orphans.

The term elder orphan describes an individual living alone with limited support, which was only amplified during the yearlong COVID isolation. It is estimated the prevalence of adults 65 years in this group is around 25 percent. They often suffer silently in isolation, with lack of social support, living great distances from immediate family members. In fact, my mom in her 70s was a caregiver for a friend in her 90s, who never had children and was long widowed.

These challenges were amplified this year, and not automatically solved with technology. Indeed, navigating the rapidly changing digital world is one challenge many seniors need help with. Most seniors do not have multiple devices, the latest broadband, or the knowledge required to screen numerous COVID-19 websites and wait lists. I have a doctorate, and find the online vaccine process mind-blowingly complicated. The process forced me to set up an early morning command center with a list of patients, vaccination sites, detailed personal records, a map of various zip codes to book appointments within an hour’s driving distance, and reminders for the second dose. This was a part-time public health job–meets–hackathon. I successfully procured appointments for all on my list. I also did the follow-up calls on transportation, directions, side effects, and required paperwork. Many have focused on the last mile in healthcare regarding vaccine distribution, but it turns out the last 100 feet into a senior’s home is the most daunting.

Nationwide, more than 50 million people are age 65 or older, roughly 25 percent live alone, and 69 percent are women (all on my vaccine list were women living alone, including my mom). COVID-19 has highlighted how devastating this virus has been to our seniors and the millions who live alone. It is also a call to action on how we prepare and fund senior care. Most seniors want to reside at home (61 percent) for as long as possible, and many will be doing this alone. We owe it to the generation who reared us to give back, and make sure their golden years are not spent in isolation, confusion, and desperation.


Meghan FitzGerald is an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She is author of the book “Ascending Davos: A Career Journey from the Emergency Room to the Boardroom.” She resides in Aquinnah with her husband and rescue Weimaraners.