A new study is raising awareness about the problem of “elder orphans” – seniors who have no children, spouse or any other family member to care for them as they age.

The research comes on the heels of a recent incident in North Carolina in which an 81-year-old cancer patient with no caregiver called 911 to ask someone to buy him some food.

Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, the chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y., recently completed a case study and literature review that she presented to The American Geriatrics Society’s Annual Scientific Meeting in May.

She says that the problem of elder orphans is growing.

“It seems that, with increasing longevity and the trend toward having fewer children and families being fragmented, that this risk of aging alone is increasing,” she said in a story on Canadian TV’s website.

In Canada and the U.S., the number of seniors is expected to grow dramatically over the next 10 to 15 years.

Carney’s study found that nearly one-quarter of Americans over 65 are currently at risk of becoming elder orphans. That proportion could grow. U.S. census data show that one-third of Americans currently between the ages of 45 to 63 are single – a 50 percent increase from 1980.

Although the number of elder orphans is likely rising, very little research has been done on these seniors and the issues they’re facing.

“The first challenge is one of awareness that this is a vulnerable population,” Carney said.

As well, there is little research on how these seniors will affect society and the medical system in the years to come. Hospital social workers and geriatricians already see elder orphans in their work every week, but there are few guidelines about how to help them long term.

“It’s a societal problem we all have to address and we are hoping to draw attention to it,” she said.

Not only do aging seniors living alone struggle with isolation and loneliness, they often grapple with growing health problems, says Carney. Some also struggle with dementia and have no one who can help them make decisions about their own care.

Elder orphans are also hard on the medical system, says Carney, since they are often in crisis and need to seek help from costly hospital emergency rooms. The better approach, she says, would be to have care plans in place for these seniors so they don’t end up in crisis in the first place.

For single adults who are in now their 50s and 60s, Carney has this advice: start making plans.

“Think about advanced directives,” she advises. “Who will be that decision-maker for you if you are unable to make decisions? Get a health care proxy; find an advocate, create a strategy for yourself.”