THE AGING BOOMERS - Meeting the Challenges of Solo Aging

Sara Zeff Geber has a Ph.D. in Counseling and Human Behavior and is the founder of LifeEncore. She is also a certified retirement coach and a recognized expert in motivating baby boomers to plan for the next phase of life.

Frank Samson : I am very excited to introduce our guest today as we discuss a very important subject . We have with us Sara Zeff Geber.

Sara has a PhD in Counseling and Human Behavior and is the founder of LifeEncore. She is also a certified retirement coach and a recognized expert in motivating baby boomers to plan for the next phase of life. Dr. Geber's personal crusade is raising awareness about the unique challenges of solo aging. She regularly speaks about this issue at conferences and meetings of financial planners, gerontology professionals, housing developers, lawmakers, and others who play a role in the aging of America. Sara, thank you so much for joining us on The Aging Boomers. I really appreciate it.

Sara Zeff Geber: Thank you, Frank. I'm happy to be here.

Frank Samson: I don't want to assume that people understand the term solo aging. Maybe let's clarify for everybody what we mean when we talk about solo aging. Can you explain that bit for all of us?

Sara Zeff Geber: Sure. I define a solo ager as anyone who doesn't have children. In that, I include people who are married, people who are single, people who are divorced. If you never have any children no matter whether you're male or female, I consider you a solo ager. Some people define it differently. I have had people argue that it should be reserved just for single people, but I don't believe so and I think I'll make it clear why I don't believe so as we go along.

Frank Samson: This is an area that obviously is growing. As you know, I'm in the industry. We work with families every day and I can't tell you how common it is, even more often than in some years back, we come across families or individuals who don't have children. How did it catch your attention? Are you a solo ager yourself? Did you have people that you knew who were in this population? You seem to be emphasizing this particular area, so how did that come about?

Sara Zeff Geber: You're exactly right. I am a solo ager myself and I find myself surrounded by other people who are solo agers. I think that's probably fairly typical for a woman who has made a career, a serious career, throughout her life and never had children. She probably, like I, knows lots of other women who have done the same thing. It caught my attention though about 8 to 10 years ago when I had a very good friend who was spending a tremendous amount of time taking care of her father-in-law. Her father-in-law was all the way on the East Coast and she spent a tremendous amount of time flying back and forth and staying for months at a time organizing his care, organizing his household, ultimately moving him into an assisted living facility, and it consumed her life for about three years.

Her husband was really the breadwinner for both of them, so she, fortunately, for the father-in-law, had the opportunity and the time to do this. But I found myself at one point just absolutely floored when the question hit me, "Who will do that for us?" The answer clearly was no one. There's nobody to pick up the flock. There's no safety net of children for solo agers. We're going to have to figure it out ourselves ahead of time or we're leaving a great deal to chance.

Frank Samson: That is for sure. Maybe explain when you are talking about those that don't have children but are married. You still categorize each of them as solo agers. Why do you do that?

Sara Zeff Geber: I do. To me, it just seems to be fairly logical that even if you are married, unless you get hit by the same bus on the same day, one of you is going to predecease the other. It's just a fact of life. The other one will truly be solo and aging. You don't know which one of you is going to be, so it's important to both plan as well as you possibly can, plan robustly ahead of time. My husband and I have made it our business to do that. We certainly don't know who is going to predecease the other, but we both have our plans in place for whichever one of us is left behind.

Frank Samson: You don't have to tell us what your plans are, but give us some examples of what our solo agers should be thinking about.

Sara Zeff Geber: Sure. Planning, in my opinion, for solo agers and for anyone, really, but certainly for solo agers should be multi-faceted. A big part of the planning is building up your support system, your relationships. Another big part of the planning is financial, and then housing is the third leg of the stool for solo agers. You need to know that you have all three of those pieces established and understand what they're going to do for you as the years go on. Sometime before you hit the age of 60, 65, for certain, 70, all solo agers should be thinking about how they're going to finance the last part of their life, whether that's 5 years or 30 years. What are they going to do? How long do they have to make a living? Do they need to continue to bring in income beyond age 65, beyond age 70? There is lots of opportunity to do that. It's just important to understand where you are financially. That's number one.

Another leg of the stool is the relationship piece. Many solo agers, both men and women, have spent a great deal of time building their careers. Once those careers wind down, many solo agers find that they don't really have a healthy relationship or social system, a support system, around them and they need to rebuild that with people outside their old work circles. Now, for some solo agers, that's not an issue. I have a number of friends and associates who have big supportive families. Others do not. If any of the listeners have large families and you're close to your nieces and nephews and your siblings and you have younger siblings, that's an excellent place to start. It always starts with family.

I have a good friend who is a solo ager. She comes from a family with four sisters. She is the youngest of the sisters but although she did not marry, all the other sisters did marry and have lots of kids. She's very close to her nieces and nephews. When she does her planning, she includes all of them in her support system. They all know what she wants in her later years. They all know how she wants to be cared for, how she wants to be treated. That was a no brainer for her.

It's not so easy for people who don't have close family. My husband and I are in that situation. Neither of us have close family nearby or close family at all, so we need to figure it out with friends and with people who don't live quite as close to us, and we will need to figure it out with some professionals as well.

Finally, the third leg. The third leg is housing. People need to give some real thought to where they want to live. The popular notion these days is people want to age in place; others have done lots of research on what people want, and the vast majority of people say they want to age in place. I'm not a huge fan of that, especially for solo agers because it can be very, very isolating and alienating to watch your world grow smaller and smaller and smaller with you in your little home or apartment. I think I have a minority opinion on that, but it's important to look at the options for where you might live where you can be surrounded by other people that can be your support system if you are a solo ager. Those are the three legs of that stool: I think they warrant close attention by all solo agers.

Frank Samson: You bring up a great point and that's the term “aging in place”. A lot depends on how you really define it. I think it has been defined in the past as "I am going to age the rest of my life in my home," but in reality, it's that you can age somewhere without being in a healthcare facility such as a skilled nursing facility. The thing is, as you know, there are so many options out there that are not so-called medical facilities where people don't want to live the rest of their life. That, to me, is also aging in place, but I know it might be stretching the term a little bit from how people are used to using it.

Sara Zeff Geber: I think we have to educate people. I know from the talks I've given around the country and the people I talk to casually, that there is a tremendous lack of understanding that there is anything between your own house and the nursing home. As you and I know, and probably a lot of your listeners know at this point, there's tremendous variety of housing opportunities between nursing home and your own personal home. I mean, your own personal home can be part of a community. I'm a huge fan of some of these new concepts like co-housing. I'm a big fan of all kinds of retirement communities. The exciting thing for everyone, not just solo agers, is that more and more innovative ideas in housing for older adults are coming up all the time by independents, by the big corporate housing companies, by what I think of as the housing giants for older adults. Everybody is getting innovative and it's just wonderful to see. I'm excited about the future of housing for older adults.

Frank Samson: That is the main business we're in and there are companies out there that are testing so many different concepts. Instead of maybe a high-rise or just one building on their campus, they set up smaller homes within their campus. Almost like they're setting up this mini subdivision for the elderly and if someone needs care, there's caregivers, etcetera.

Sara Zeff Geber: Yes, wonderful.

Frank Samson: There are a lot more options out there for people, I agree. One question I was going to ask you and I think I know the answer but I want to ask you anyway, is when you're talking to your clients or giving advice, are they in total shock when they hear what the cost could be should they need any type of assisted living or maybe even memory care assistance in the future or are they aware of those types of cost?

Sara Zeff Geber: I don't get in to the business of talking to them about cost. I know what the costs are because I've done a lot of research in this area, so I know what's out there and I know the range. I encourage people to find a financial advisor and talk to her or him about their future, about what they can afford. Financial advisors, those that I know anyway, the good ones, they all are very aware of what housing costs for older adults and they can help people work it out. It is a shock to a lot of people though, and people don't realize how much money they will need to depend on in the last few years of their lives.

I'm a big fan of long-term care insurance. A lot of people who have had it now for 10 years or so got some very good programs and I encourage them to keep them up. Don't let them falter. People are making very good use of those in their later years. I know there are some communities that want people to have long-term care insurance. Of course, many people don't have that. It's expensive. I think there are a lot of ways to work with this and I think that's where some of these innovative housing ideas are going to have to show up because people are going to need housing and a lot of them aren't going to be able to afford the kind of housing that exists today.

Frank Samson: Right. You mentioned the term housing, I think our listeners need to understand this. When we say housing, obviously, it could just be that. It could be just you're paying rent somewhere, but the reality is, is that once you hit 70 years old, the chances are pretty good that you're going to need some additional care, some additional long-term care, and that could be anywhere from medication management, reminders on taking medication to help with what we call activities of daily living, just the day-to-day type things. That's where the additional cost over and above housing can occur.

Sara Zeff Geber: Absolutely. Housing, I think I agree with you, is a cold term. People need to find a place to live where it's safe and secure and they have their care needs, if and when they have them, are met. That can be in a lot of different kinds of settings. It can even be a setting with roommates where there is an aide that comes in to provide some care to whoever needs it, when they need it, someone who is available and easily accessed. There's a network … I'm seeing a new network out there now called Silvernest, that puts people together with roommates, if you will. Housemates can be a wonderful way to build a home with like-minded people that will save you from the kind of isolation that you may easily fall into if you're all on your own.

Frank Samson: Right. We actually had a representative from Silvernest in a show … it's a great concept.

Sara Zeff Geber: It is! There was another organization a few years ago called the Golden Girl Network started by a woman in Maryland. That, unfortunately, doesn't exist any longer. Someone told me that the woman who started it became ill herself and had to let it go. I was so sorry to hear that because she was doing such a good thing by promoting that concept. She had a whole training program around how to find roommates and how to draw up a legal agreement. It was just terrific.

Frank Samson: Now, it's also important to know, not every assisted living that may have independent living and assisted living in their community will pair people up. Obviously they will want to make sure it's going to be compatible. They're not matchmakers but it's always good to inquire about that. Let's say you needed help, a little bit of help from a care standpoint and you were alone and you were willing to have a shared apartment, some places will try to match you up. Not all, but some.

Sara Zeff Geber: That's terrific.

Frank Samson: So any other suggestions you have for people relative to living arrangements? I know you mentioned Silvernest, but anything else you recommend?

Sara Zeff Geber: I mentioned co-housing. It's a phenomenon that is growing. It started in Europe about 20 years ago and there are now several developers who specialize in building co-housing properties … they're always grassroots efforts. It's always someone that gets fired up about building a co-housing community and gets it started and recruits others. Again, it's always a grassroots effort. But I'm a big fan. I'm a big fan of what's known now as elder co-housing, which is a concept that speaks for itself. It's people over 55 who want to build a community that they can grow old together in. I just think that's a terrific way to go about it.

The one community that I'm very familiar with in California was … Gosh, it was during the recession and people were finally able to move in, I think, about 2013 or 2014..They actually built an additional unit, two units on the property for the immediate use of people coming to visit. Anyone can reserve the units for visiting family, but ultimately, those units are earmarked for caregivers because that community is going to be growing old together. The age range right now is early 60s to mid-80s. They are going to be aging together and they will need care at some point, many of them. I think that was a very forward-thinking on their part.

Frank Samson: How would people, if they want to either get in touch with you or track what you're doing? I know you have plans to be coming out with a book real soon on this very subject matter, so do you have a website or any contact information to share?

Sara Zeff Geber: I sure do. Yes, I have been writing a book on solo aging for the past couple of years. I was just on the threshold of self-publishing when a publisher, a traditional publisher got very interested, so it's going to be a little delayed, but I'm hoping it'll still be out by the end of this year. Meanwhile, my website is I can be reached through the website or at

Frank Samson: Okay, and that's

Sara Zeff Geber: That's correct.

Frank Samson: We only have a couple of minutes left here so I'm going to hit you with this one question. I'm going to put you on the spot.

Sara Zeff Geber: Sure.

Frank Samson: For those solo agers out there, those who are listening or those who have clients that are solo agers, what are the steps that you think need to be taken immediately or within a reasonable period of time? What are your suggestions?

Sara Zeff Geber: Great question and I go back to my little proverbial three-legged stool. Understand your finances. Get yourself to a financial advisor. Get yourself to someone who can sit down with you and take a look at what you have, what you're earning now, what you potentially can earn if you need to in the future, and where you are financially. Then do an assessment of your support system. Who is in your life? What family is in your life? What friends are in your life, especially younger friends that you can rely upon?

I want to add one thing to that I haven't mentioned. I'm also a very big fan of solo agers hiring fiduciaries, people who understand their wishes, people who you can build a relationship with. They charge by the hour and it's all back-loaded. They don't do too much except charge you for a meeting like every year or so until you need the help. Then as long as you have an estate of some sort, you have some money in reserve, their time on the backend when decisions need to be made in your behalf, that's when they charge for their time.

My husband and I have been in touch with fiduciaries and we're going to be using fiduciaries in our advanced healthcare directives and our trust, again, because we don't have close family, and I think that's very important for people who are in that same boat.

Frank Samson: Great point. Sara, thank you so much for joining us on The Aging Boomers. Sara Zeff Geber, check it out at Again, I want to thank everybody for joining in. Of course, so many of you tuned in to iTunes, iHeartRadio, Spreaker, Stitcher or gone to our website at Thank you for that. Sara, thank you and just wanted to let everybody know to be safe out there and we'll talk to you all soon. Thanks so much.