“Are we really saying these people had no living relatives or friends? Or is it something sadder, namely that the busy, atomised lives we increasingly lead mean that too often we have become so distant from blood relatives that we don’t have any idea even when they are dying?” Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Health speech to the LGA
Let’s start with the statistics
1 in 5 women over the age of 50 has no children. We have no data for men because we don’t collect that information in this country, however academics working with data from other European countries estimate that the figure for men who have never been fathers is at least the equivalent of, or slightly higher, than women. It is estimated that by 2030, 2 million people will be over 65 without ever having had children.
The demographics of the UK have shifted hugely, while most people do marry and have a family, increasingly large numbers of people do not for a whole host of reasons. This demographic shift however seems to have gone unnoticed by many across the age sector, not just politicians but also local authorities, the NHS and the third sector. While everyone is aware that the older population is increasing, how that population is constituted and how people within it live their lives seems to be less well understood. The fact that at least 1 in 5 older people have no children has not been recognised in policy or debates on ageing. It’s no surprise that when even Age UK in its newly updated factsheet on the older population doesn’t mention the rising numbers of people over 50 who have no children, that the issue is ignored.
So yes Jeremy it is wholly possible that some older people have no family.
However, people ageing without children doesn’t just mean those who have never been parents. It also includes people who are estranged from their children, people whose children have predeceased them and people whose children live far away from them. It’s not news that many people’s children have had to move to find employment or afford housing. So yes Jeremy people’s lives are busy and atomised. Most people don’t live just round the corner from their families anymore.
However, the state resolutely refuses to acknowledge the fact that many older people don’t have children (or in fact partners/spouses) in their lives for whatever reason. Instead it continues to assume older people have family and that their family will be able to offer care and support to them. People in the Ageing without children community report bafflement from health services in particular when they explain that, no they don’t have any children or in other cases partners/spouses who can help after discharge from hospital or if they have an accident. The concept that some people and increasingly large numbers of people over 50, don’t have children to just pop in and help seems wholly unimaginable to them. Social care and health systems rely on families propping up the gaps left by increasingly vicious cuts and are not planning for the fact that this support isn’t going to be there.
Also, as we’ve said before, we don’t believe that families should be expected to fill these gaps. Properly funded care and support should be available to all older people whether they have family or not. Expecting families to shoulder increasingly heavy care and support responsibilities is not acceptable. They should not have to plug the gaps in a failing social care and health system
Should we as a wider society debate how we view older people? Absolutely. Should we as a society be less ageist? Yes definitely. However, those are in some ways the easy questions; the real debate is Should we as a society spend more money on social care and support services to help older people stay independent and happy in their own homes till the end of their life irrespective of whether they have family support?
But this doesn’t feel like a debate that the Government wants to have at all. What the Government wants to do is shift the narrative to older people being the responsibility of their families without any recognition that not every older person has a family or that every older person is close to their family. Once the story becomes older people are the responsibility of families, it’s not a huge stretch to see how continued cuts to social care and support services will be justified on the basis that it’s the families job to look after them. Once those services are gone, they won’t be back. For those of us ageing without children, a future that throws everything back to the family and isn’t even aware of the numbers of people who don’t have one, is a bleak and worrying one