RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When older people are confronted with the frailties that can come with age, they often look to family. According to the AARP, more than 30 million Americans care for at least one aging family member. But increasingly, older adults can find themselves without any family to rely on. NPR's Ina Jaffe explains why this isn't just an issue of more older people and fewer children.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: It's not just that baby boomers had smaller families than previous generations. Many of their adult children moved away, so they're not nearby. There are also fewer spouses to step in because baby boomers divorce more than previous generations. So for many older adults, having family to fall back on when they need help just isn't possible.
MARTIN: So what are the other options?
JAFFE: Well, there's a growing industry of professional home care providers. You can (laughter) you can hear the names of a couple of them in NPR's funding credits. But that can cost around $20 an hour, which is not affordable for everybody. So sometimes it's friends who fill the gap, and recently I met a group who did just that.
ELAINE FOGEL: You didn't need the queen, did you?
JIM THILLMAN: I needed the jack.
JAFFE: This is the weekly pinochle game at The LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs. There are around a dozen people who come to the game regularly, most of them gay, some not, all older.
FOGEL: He doesn't haves aces. He doesn't have a double pinochle.
JAFFE: That's Elaine Fogel. She's 81. She has no relatives nearby. She never married, never had children. And a few months ago, she had a health crisis.
FOGEL: I woke up one night, and I couldn't catch my breath.
JAFFE: Turns out she has COPD - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She was already using a walker. Now she also drags an oxygen generator with her wherever she goes, so no way could she move a refrigerator. That's what her friend, 69-year-old Jim Thillman, is for.
THILLMAN: We had to move it about 15 feet so we could get in and get the shelf level. That was strange.
FOGEL: That was fun.
JAFFE: Fogel says Thillman took care of the mechanical stuff. Her 63-year-old friend Mark Swanson cooked for her.
FOGEL: Mark was coming over three, four times a week bringing me real beautiful homemade meals.
JAFFE: Anything she wanted, says Swanson.
MARK SWANSON: Or whatever I was having for dinner.
JAFFE: Elaine Fogel can cook her own meals now, but she's not allowed to turn on her gas stove. It could be an explosive combination with her ever-present oxygen machine. So another friend, 78-year-old George Sellers, and his partner gave her a crockpot. Sellers says for older gay men like himself who came of age when families and society may not have been so accepting, friends often are family.
GEORGE SELLERS: And I think the older we get the more we realize that we do need a circle of friends that are going to help out.
JAFFE: None of the help that Elaine Fogel got from her pinochle friends was planned. She morbidly jokes about what her options would have been if they hadn't stepped in.
FOGEL: I signed up to donate my body to science. They'll come and take my body and everything.
JAFFE: Joke or not, it shows how important, even life-saving, friendships can be.
MARTIN: And we're joined now on the line with Ina to talk more about her story. Ina, you know, we think of older people as needing care, but this shows that part of getting older is giving care, too, right?
JAFFE: Exactly, and, you know, when I was talking to the pinochle group, none of them had specific plans for how they would get the care they needed if and when the time came. So here's a shout-out to our listeners. If you're dealing with these issues, we'd like to know about it. Email email@example.com. That's caregiving - all one word - @npr.org.
MARTIN: Thanks so much, Ina. NPR's Ina Jaffe who covers aging.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS D.'S "KINDRED SPIRIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.