You might recall seeing a story last month about a wheelchair-bound 81-year-old North Carolina resident who called 911 because he was hungry and had no food in his house. He had no family members or friends nearby who could help him. A kindhearted 911 operator and local police brought groceries to the man. While many saw this as a unique story with a happy ending, in fact it is a sign of a bigger problem that often does not end happily.

Like the North Carolina man, many adults 65 and older are "elder orphans." The term, coined by Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at North Shore-LIJ Health System, succinctly illustrates the fragility and vulnerability of many seniors who are aging alone without the help or support of relatives or friends. Carney, senior author of a study detailing the issue, says as many as 22 percent of adults 65 and older are at high risk of becoming elder orphans. She presented her findings last month at the American Geriatrics Society's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

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"The term, I think, is hitting home for people," Carney says. "This is likely to be a population that's going to grow, so we have to prepare as a society." Unfortunately, a senior in this situation is typically not noticed until there is a crisis.

Because of longer life spans, some elderly seniors may not be able to count on help from their children, who may themselves be in their 60s and 70s. "The children of these older individuals have their own health issues and are also having struggles with aging," Carney says.

Before a solution can be found, Carney says, government and society must recognize the scope of the problem. "We don't fully understand how big the problem is, and yet in my practice, either in the hospital or in the office, I see these individuals," Carney says. Her goal as an advocate for the elderly is to raise awareness. "We don't have all the answers, but this is a call to action," she says. "This is a whole new challenge for us."

If you're looking for a small way you can be part of the solution, Home Instead Senior Care Foundation has a new program called the Sunday Dinner Pledge. The foundation will donate $1 to Meals on Wheels for each person who pledges to have regular sit-down dinners with an elderly family member, neighbor or friend. For more information, go to