a homeless man in a wheelchair is out on the street because there is no one to be his caretaker

As I was waiting for a bus in the outer-edges of Brooklyn, a particularly fragrant homeless man steered his wheelchair aggressively into the crowd. The crowd parted like the Red Sea, only to realize he was staking his claim to be first on the bus. There was a moment of panic as people checked the bus schedule and confirmed the next bus was another 25 minutes away and there was no other route home. I was torn between feeling empathy for this man, who was trying to get himself from the free clinic to his home unaided, and the thought of a long, stomach-churning ride home.

a homeless man stands in a doorway wrapped in blankets and carrying his things in a trash bagHe stepped up from his wheelchair for a moment, carefully adjusting the rags he had soiled himself into, before the bus driver helped him into the bus. He politely reminded the driver to lock his wheelchair brakes. When another bus pulled up, the crowd rushed it and a few people pleaded with that driver to skip his break. No such luck – he couldn’t go off schedule. As one of the more vocal women got on the bus in front of me, I heard the driver apologize to her, sighing that it was discrimination to not let him ride the bus.

We know that caregivers are important. We can rattle off statistics about how much money we save the insurance companies – a figure I don’t feel particularly good about. But our importance is even more apparent when ‘informal’ caregivers and private insurance are taken out of the picture. Then you’re left with people like this man, who was in such dire need of additional care.

The other day I was reading about George Hodgman, who moved in with his mother after realizing she needed around-the-clock care and there was no one else to provide it. What happens to the 90-year-old women who don’t have children, or have children who aren’t able to uproot themselves from their lives to re-enter the lives of their parents? Are they left to keep driving off the road as they struggle to get to the doctor’s office and the grocery store? Are they destined to be skeletons discovered when the property tax bill goes unpaid too long?

In Manitoba, public insurance will now provide ongoing payments to people whose unpaid caregivers die in car accidents, rather than just paying a one-time death benefit. It appears that this is the only public insurance scheme in Canada that provides such coverage and recognizes the role of family caregivers.

Nearly a quarter of America’s 43 million seniors are at risk of becoming ‘elder orphans.’ If they qualify for public programs – and someone assists them with applying and fulfilling the requirements – they can receive basic support. As many of us know, people fall through the cracks as they struggle with the application or find that there’s a very long waiting list for service. It shows up in the news occasionally when someone is forgotten, others never get the help they need.

What happens to the people who need care but have no friends or family to take them in at their own expense? If they’re lucky they end up in a nursing home. If they’re not, they end up on the streets.

Featured image: Robert Hoetink / Shutterstock.com

Written by Michelle Daly

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  1. I’m an only child with no husband or children. I’ve been taking care of both my parents alone for the past 12 years. They’re now in their mid 90’s. I still work part-time, but am unsure of my future as I age. It’s scary.

  2. Sad they are shuffled around to Different Hospitals and Mental Health Centers for Treatment.

  3. If you know an unpaid and long-term caregiver, you should know that s/he is probably burning through a life’s savings and giving up vital homeowner, life and health insurances as resources dwindle. Be patient when your invitations to restaurants, theatre, etc. are declined, there may not be energy or money to socialiize. And when the care giving is over, employment may be out of reach and the caregiver faces a future as an elder orphan.

  4. Over twenty three years, both parents…alone. I know they appreciated me.

  5. To all of you. Caregivers are unsung heroes. Sending you love and hugs.

  6. So sad, but true. I strongly vow that my father will NEVER be an elder orphan. He is my life and my blood and his every need will be taken care of. My heart breaks for the people I see struggling with no one in sight whether it be a hospital stay or a doctor visit.

  7. Debbie that was my prayer, that my husband would pass first. He also was a 24 /7 . I took care of him for over 10 years and did everything for him. He passed July 6th 2017. But I often wonder if it was me who would take care of me

  8. I pray that is not me or if I die first, not my husband! I am24/7.

  9. So what happened to the man? Where is the follow up? Where is DHS? OLTC? Anybody?

  10. Horrible . We can spend millions on athletes and celebrities but people in need are discarded.

  11. I have been a caregiver for many years off and on as someone who was close was suddenly incapacitated by illness or injury. I also work with homeless shelters in Albuquerque where I live. We have many elderly that are homeless and living on the street. Some are mentally ill, some are elderly vets from long past wars, and some are not receiving enough in Social Security benefits to keep them in an apartment or home. They can be seen begging on the roadside or street corner and often are using walkers or canes and some in wheelchairs to get around. It is a terrrible and shameful sight and isn’t going to cease anytime soon. I have no idea what some of them are doing to maintain health and hygiene, but surprisingly, most of the elderly keep their appearances up better than the younger homeless do. Perhaps it is a last ditch effort to maintain at least a small amount of self-respect and self-esteem. I feel frustrated considering this nation holds most of the world’s wealth and yet we have so many older citizens barely surviving and vets going without basic services for their needs as well. I work with various people that are doing everything they can to reach and help at least a few of the elderly and disabled homeless. Sadly, we are unable to do enough to reach them all due to limited resources.

  12. I’m looking at this — my only child is disabled to the point of being mostly unable to take care of herself and my husband is 81 (i am not yet 70.) if i’m so lucky (?) i will outlive both, or even if i don’t outlive my daughter, she will most likely be unable to care for me (she has no children or husband.) i haven’t a clue what will happen if i develop dementia or a seriously disabling condition. if i had huge amounts of money, then it would not be such a problem, but i have only enough to cover ‘normal’ expenses now. twenty years from now, i will be at the mercy of whatever social system is in place.


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