Ageism and ageing without children

Since raising the topic of ageing without children in this blog in April, things have moved on a lot. With the brilliant support of Mervyn Eastman (@mervchangent), Jody Day @gateway women and Robin Hadley @RobinHadley1, Ageing without children has gone from being some angry thoughts in my head to a high profile discussion topic even featuring on women’s hour. We now have an event planned on January 26th in London to look at some of the broader issues, some aims and objectives set out here and are in the process of looking for partners and funding to carry out more research with older people to help identify some solutions.

What has been interesting for me is the feelings it has stirred up both in myself and in other people. For me it cannot help but be an emotional topic; as someone who has spent 20 years working in the field of ageing and seeing the appalling ageism and poor care services in this country, the fact that I will most likely be left to face that alone, or that my husband will be facing that alone, is very frightening. I AM afraid of being old, frail and lonely with no children around to help or care because I’ve seen what it’s like for older people with no one to fight their corner and frankly, it ain’t good! However, saying you’re afraid of this happening to you seems to be taboo. The default responses of “I didn’t have children so they could look after me/children are no guarantee of support” seem almost designed to stop people like me from expressing our fears. Since the segment on Women’s Hour I have had a number of emails from older people ageing without children saying thing the same thing; that people don’t want to hear them say that they are afraid.

Of course having children is no guarantee of support or help in later life; that really should go without saying. There are of course no guarantees in life. However statistics tell us that the vast majority of older people with children do get help and support from them, frankly the health and social care system would collapse if they didn’t, so no there are no guarantees your children will be around to support you when you age but it’s a very high probability they will.

I think though there are wider issues at play here. Having spent 20 years working with older people, I have no illusions about how ageist our entire society still is. It just doesn’t consider older people as individuals or see them as important equal members of society. Most people if they stop and think about it, know that too, and so they push the fact of their own ageing to the back of their mind. Despite progress we have a very long way to go to eradicate ageism.

Although we are all glad we’re living longer, generally people don’t actually want to think about being old. It’s why, in my view attempts to get people to save for their retirement or discuss what might happen if they need residential care, are such an uphill struggle. People don’t want to think of themselves at 70 or 80; most people simply can’t, or don’t want to, imagine it.

Ageing is frightening to the majority of people and they don’t want to think about it. Ageing without children shines a light on aspects of ageing that people really don’t want to think about. It is uncomfortable but with 20-25% of people growing old without children, it must be done.


“I didn’t have children to look after me”

This is often the one of the first responses we get when we talk about ageing without children. We need to make it clear that we don’t think that’s why people have children; I mean really does anyone anywhere know someone who had children purely so they could be looked after in their old age?

However, the reality is that one in for people aged in their 40/50s are caring for their parents. Overall there are 7 million family carers in the UK and three in five people will become carers; 12% of people in the UK care caring for an older relative. Adult children are providing vast quantities of care to their parents as they age. Most of what they do goes unnoticed and unappreciated by the state. Government policy talks about the need to support family carers but the reality is, that support is patchy at best, nonexistent at worst.

No one has children in order to care for them in their old age but the reality is that a lot of people do end up and will end up relying on their children for support when they are old because health and social care services are underfunded and over stretched. The decimation of social care funding in particular has had a devastating effect; 90% of local authorities now only provide care to people with critical and substantial leaving people with moderate and low needs to rely on others. Government policy operates on the tacit assumption that older people will have children and that those children will take on a lot, if not all, of the care and support their parents need.

Of course, older people don’t want to rely on their children for care; I expect pretty much every bodies parents have said to them at some stage “I don’t want you to look after me”. Older people would much rather spend quality time with their children than have them cleaning the house, doing their shopping or giving them a shower. However, if that help isn’t being provided any other way and will simply not get done then inevitably those care and support tasks will fall to people’s chidren. We need services that don’t expect families to fill the gap; services that recognise 2 million people will age without children.

We believe that a world that understands that 20-25% of people will age without children and responds accordingly will be a better world for ALL older people, both for those with children and those without.