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.


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