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Elder orphans a growing concern in ND, where 1 out of 3 seniors live alone

Mary McCormack, left, who is a Senior Companion volunteer, visits with Elsie Brenkworth at her Fargo home. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

FARGO — Elsie Brenkworth doesn't like people telling her what to do. So when her daughter who lives in Maryland lined up someone to visit the 93-year-old weekly at her home here, Brenkworth resisted.

Volunteer companion Mary McCormack, 64, admits it was a stumbling start for the two.

"At first, she tried to get rid of me," McCormack laughed, "so we did have some weeks when we didn't get together."

Now, their friendship is humming along, with a two- to three-hour visit every Tuesday.

"I do enjoy her, and I look forward to her coming," Brenkworth said.

Brenkworth is among a growing number of seniors in the state who live alone. In fact, North Dakota tops all states in the percentage of seniors living solo, a situation that for some means a day-to-day feeling of deep isolation.

U.S. Census figures show nearly 32 percent of people age 65 and older in North Dakota live by themselves — about twice as many women as men.

South Dakota ranks fourth, with 30 percent of seniors living alone. Minnesota is 12th, with about 29 percent of it seniors being solitary.

In contrast, only 19 percent of seniors in Hawaii and 22 percent of seniors in Utah live alone. Some have taken up the term "elder orphans" to describe these seniors, many of whom have no close family support.

Nancy Nikolas Maier, director of aging services at the state Department of Human Services, said while that term isn't familiar in North Dakota, the situation certainly is. And it's bound to become even more pronounced in the coming decades.

"We have a lot of individuals who are living longer, are widowed, maybe lost their spouse, people whose children have moved away," Nikolas Maier said. Others may be divorced, or have never married or had children.

Days are 'long, lonely'

Brenkworth has lived alone for nearly 40 years following the loss of her husband, Bob, who died in his late 50s after a career in the U.S. Navy and Washington politics.

She later moved to Fargo to be near her youngest daughter and her family, plus she's fortunate to have the support of her other daughter on the East Coast. Brenkworth attends church and plays bingo regularly in the retirement complex where she lives, but doesn't sugarcoat things when her kids call to ask, "How was your day?"

"I'll say 'long, lonely,' " she said.

Brenkworth is one of six clients McCormack sees regularly in her volunteer role with Senior Companion, a program of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.

Several of those clients don't get out of their homes at all.

"There are some people who are very lonely, I'm afraid," McCormack said.

Becky Telin, statewide director of the LSS Senior Companion Program, said it's helped reduce feelings of isolation for seniors who often want to stay in their homes, and out of nursing homes, as long as possible.

"That's the way people want to age," Telin said.

Of 620 clients served statewide by LSS between July 2015 to June 2016, about 83 percent remained in their homes an additional 12 months after being matched with a Senior Companion.

Telin said it means a significant cost savings to clients, families and taxpayers.

More seniors, fewer family caregivers

The Senior Companion Program is just one way to support seniors who are living independently in North Dakota. Nikolas Maier says there are multiple home- and community-based services available, paid for by either federal or state funding.

Some seniors may need help maintaining or cleaning their home. Others may need assistance with cooking or personal cares.

"There really is a wide variety of services people can take advantage of," Nikolas Maier said.

Similar programs are available in Minnesota, including Senior Companion and meal services through Lutheran Social Services.

In addition, the Tri-Valley Opportunity Council based in Crookston has a Caring Companion program. It serves the counties of Clay, Kittson, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau.

The demand for those senior support services will only grow.

According to U.S. Census population projections, the number of people age 65 and over in North Dakota is projected to rise 41 percent over the next 15 years.

At the same time, there are expected to be even fewer family caregivers in the future.

While there were 7.2 potential family caregivers for every person 80 and older in the U.S. in 2010, that ratio is likely to fall to 4 to 1 by 2030, and to 3 to 1 by 2050, according to a 2015 AARP public policy report.

Though Elsie Brenkworth really doesn't want anyone fussing over her, she understands why her children are concerned.

"It's because they love me, and they didn't want me to be alone," she said.