Adult Orphans: Losing Parents Later in Life

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 08 December 2010

My Dad is one. My mother-in-law is one, as is my Grandma. A good friend of mine, who is several years younger than me, is also part of this group.

Adult orphans are everywhere.  You might be one, but if you’re not, you probably know someone who has lost both parents. I never thought about it much before, this concept of having no parents in later life. Of course, it’s inevitable to some extent, but the word orphan typically conjures up images of children in foreign countries (or in the USA) waiting for adoptive parents to bring them home. Maybe you think of Annie, the movie/musical blockbuster about the rags-to-riches story of the curly-haired redhead and her friends in Miss Hannigan’s orphanage.

Whatever comes to mind, how often does a 28-year-old with two children of her own pop up, or an 85-year-old with children and great-grandchildren? Probably not as often, but they are orphans nonetheless.

I am blessed to have both parents still living, so I don’t know what it’s like to be an adult orphan. I would imagine that even if you have a large and close-knit extended family, there is a sense of abandonment, vulnerability, isolation or loneliness that is hard to put into words. And if you don’t have a support system, either of friends or family, the losses could be truly devastating.

In doing some research for this post – a topic which was suggested by one of our Twitter followers in response to my request for new ideas – I found that there isn’t much out there on the subject. When I tried to locate the percentage of adults who have lost both parents, Google returned overwhelming results for stats on HIV/Aids Orphans. After refining my search terms a bit, I stumbled on some more specific information, although I have yet to uncover an exact (or even estimated) percentage of adults in this category.

Here are a few of the web articles/blogs that I found, offering support and resources for the orphaned adult:

If you’re interested in reaching out and talking to other adult orphans, check out http://adultorphan.meetup.com/ to identify support groups in your area. Additionally, you may want to check in with local hospice agencies to see if they sponsor any such groups or know of some in the area.

I also discovered this abstract from a piece published in Newsweek in 2000, covering such issues as the impact of orphanhood on baby boomer’s marriages and careers: http://www.theorphansociety.org/upload/babyboomers.pdf.

Here’s a quote from the piece that I found quite fascinating: “There is no one, now, standing between you and the grave.” A disconcerting thought, perhaps, but there is likely much truth to it, that those boomers and older adults who have lost both parents feel a strong sense of vulnerability and a stark reminder of mortality unique to experiencing this loss later in life.

I’d love to hear from our readers on this one. Some of the pieces I read indicated that the “adult orphan” status was liberating in some cases, a positive, natural step in life that we (almost) all must take at some point. For others, it destroyed their marriage. Many may have been caregivers for one or both parents before their passing, which adds another dimension to the grief process. Sound off here, and if you know of other resources that I haven’t mentioned, please share.

-Michelle Seitzer


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