Ageing Without Children


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Why we must all challenge the dangerous myth that families are too selfish to care for their parent

“Britain is too selfish to care for its elderly” scream the headlines in today’s Daily Mail. This follows hot on the heels of Care Minister Jacky Doyle Price’s  comments at the Conservative Party conference lecturing the country on how it should look to the example of black & minority ethnic communities on how to the care for their elderly relatives. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Jeremy Hunt first exhorted British families to be more like those in Asia back in 2013. Since then successive Government ministers have repeated the mantra that families must do more

“A wholesale repairing of the social contract so that children see their parents giving wonderful care to grandparents – and recognise that in time that will be their responsibility too” Jeremy Hunt Sec State for Health 2015

“The ’Auntie’s room’ is a room for parents, or your grandparents. And they just assume that when you get a place for your parents, you will have a place for your parents – you will look after your parents. I think we can do with a bit more of that Asian attitude in Britain” Sajid Javid Business Secretary 2015

“We’re not going to turn overnight into a society where everyone can live in large housing units, but all sorts of things suggest that more people will probably have a mum or dad living with them at some stage in the future” Alistair Burt, Care Minister2015

“We need to start thinking as a society about how we deal with care of our own parents. One of the things that has struck me as I’ve been doing this role is that nobody ever questions the fact that we look after our children, that’s just obvious. Nobody ever says it is a caring responsibility, it’s just what you do. I think some of that logic and some of way we think about that, in terms of the sort of volume of numbers that we are seeing coming down the track, will have to impinge on the way we start thinking about how we look after our parents. In a way, it is a responsibility in terms of our life cycle that is similar.”  David Mowat Minister for Care January 2017

This narrative that families aren’t doing enough and that if everyone just “took responsibility”, the care crisis would be solved is a dangerous myth and must be stopped.

The reality is that 92% of all unpaid care in this country is provided by families and is worth approximately 55 billion to the State. There are 11.8 million people over 65 in the UK and of those 421,000 live in a residential or nursing home with a further 380,000 receiving care at home. The State really isn’t providing care to vast numbers of older people, its families who are providing care to vast numbers of older people. To receive care at home, one must pass the Fair Access to Care criteria which for most councils is limited to critical or substantial needs vis

Critical – when:

  • life is, or will be, threatened; and/or
  • significant health problems have developed or will develop; and/or
  • there is, or will be, little or no choice and control over vital aspects of the immediate environment; and/or
  • serious abuse or neglect has occurred or will occur; and/or
  • there is, or will be, an inability to carry out vital personal care or domestic routines; and/or
  • vital involvement in work, education or learning cannot or will not be sustained; and/or
  • vital social support systems and relationships cannot or will not be sustained; and/or
  • vital family and other social roles and responsibilities cannot or will not be undertaken

Substantial – when:

  • there is, or will be, only partial choice and control over the immediate environment; and/or
  • abuse or neglect has occurred or will occur; and/or
  • there is, or will be, an inability to carry out the majority of personal care or domestic routines; and/or
  • involvement in many aspects of work, education or learning cannot or will not be sustained; and/or
  • the majority of social support systems and relationships cannot or will not be sustained; and/or
  • the majority of family and other social roles and responsibilities cannot or will not be undertaken

To think that people who need that level of care can be supported by their family just popping round to see them a bit more would be laughable if it didn’t seem to be the case that Government genuinely believe it.

For people ageing without children though this is genuinely no laughing matter. As the Government resolutely continues to parrot the families must do more narrative alongside refusing to do anything about social care, people ageing without children remain invisible. As ever, it simply never occurs to Ministers that people may not have children because let’s be honest, when Government say older peoples’ families they mean older people’s children. To be fair, it’s not just a problem at national level. Locally although strategies on ageing may acknowledge that the low fertility rates mean fewer younger people which will impact on social care workforce, few if any join up the dots to consider the impact on individuals ageing without children.

At AWOC we are working on solutions albeit much slower than we would like due to lack of funding but it is vital we find some ways forward. In the absence of Government understanding or willingness to act, it really is up to us to find ways to manage this demographic shift. The alternative is the people ageing without children will be left dangerously unsupported by a Government who refuses to acknowledge they even exist.





Kindness Can – being kind can make all the difference to people ageing without children

There has been an interesting thread on our Facebook group this week based on people’s experiences of not being in the grandparents club. People talked of being at retirement parties, family get togethers, clubs they belonged too & even holidays with friends where they were treated as completely invisible because they couldn’t join in with the grandparent chat. The exclusion of non grandparents is something we’ve blogged about before

The feeling of being, and even more so treated, as invisible & of less importance than parents is a common experience for people ageing without children

In our research “Our Voices”, feelings of being invisible and of being judged came up repeatedly

“There are in our society still strong taboos associated with being an adult without children. People who have chosen not to be parents, in particular, face a lot of criticism, and the implication is that they ‘deserve’ anything that happens to them in later life, as they should have thought about that before. Even for those who wanted children but were unable to have any, there is a suggestion that they have no stake in the future, have no interest in what happens to society at large, and are ‘less finished, less emotionally complete, and less capable’” (Our Voices 2016)

Being old and being without children means being at the intersection of 2 parts of society that are routinely rendered invisible. The effects of ageism have been well documented e.g. YouGov poll of people aged between 65 and 93, almost two thirds (62 per cent) were concerned about being seen as a problem by society and 47 per cent complained of ageism. 48 per cent said they thought their generation was ‘ignored’, and more than a third (37 per cent) felt treated disrespectfully because of their age. Older people are routinely treated as an homogenous mass with no separated out views. Research has shown that older people are “considerably under-represented” on TV with over-55s accounting for just 8% of entertainment presenters and 12% of lead roles in drama. As people age, they are simply less visible in society.

Sadly the prejudice and judegment also faced by people without children remains strong. Often, its the very casual nature of such hurtful and judgemental comments that make them so hard to respond to. Jody Day from Gateway Women describes the common remarks people make without stopping to think as ‘bingos’. We reproduce some of them here:

  • ‘You should have thought about having children when you were gallivanting around for your career!’ (Not knowing about infertility, lack of partner, etc. and also describing any woman with a job as a ‘career woman’).
  • ‘If you’d really wanted children, you would have tried harder.’ (To someone who may have endured multiple failed IVF cycles, or has perhaps taken the decision not to be a parent because of a genetic condition that made being a parent unwise).
  • ‘I didn’t have children so that they could look after me when I’m old!’ (Though when challenged by being asked what plans they have in place to ensure their children don’t have to look after them, these plans never seem to exist)
  • ‘Well, what have you got to worry about? You’ve got loads of money that you’ve saved from not bringing up children!’ (Unaware of the cost of living crisis for the many who live alone and don’t get family tax breaks, let alone fertility treatment debt).
  • ‘You can all just live together when you’re old.’ (As if that’s what they’d like for themselves, not considering the needs of the individual, nor later life care needs).
  • ‘You can’t expect the state to support you now; you should have thought of that earlier!’ (Not considering that adults without children may have paid taxes their entire working lives to support the infrastructure that benefits families: education, health, roads, leisure, sports, and so on).

The narrative around men aging without children also contains its own bingos:

  • ‘Lucky escape mate!’ (Implying that being without children is an enviable state to most men, even though the poor health of men ageing without children shows this is far from being the case).
  • ‘Charlie Chaplin was fathering them into his 80s.’ (Implying that men can go on fathering children until well into old age, even though research shows that is definitely the exception rather than the norm).

The language & stereotypes used to describe people without children ageing or otherwise is often deeply unkind. At best we are seen as selfish hedonists who chose not to have children so we could have more holidays & a nice lie in at the weekend to truly horrible descriptions of selfish immature people who have no stake in society and even suggestions we should be excluded from voting or from being politicians as our lack of children makes us unable to understand “normal” people. It doesn’t get much more unkind than that

The practical effect of this unkindness, of this invisibility and judgement is policy, & planning on ageing that assumes all older people have children and services for older people that rely on them having someone which in the majority of cases is their child, to smooth the way & makes things work.

People ageing without children are up to a third more likely to be carers for their parents and know exactly how hard it is to make the system work which also means they have no illusions about what faces people with no one to speak up for them.

Being kind, thinking before we speak, putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, all of these make a big difference to groups who already feel marginalised & excluded. Show people from marginalised groups that you are listening & acknowledge their concerns.

Kindness can make a better society for us all; kindness can – can you?

AWOC receives no public funding or grants and relies entirely on donations. Donate to us here

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Set up a standing order for at least £5 per month or £60 per year: Ageing Without Children – 23063062 – 20-21-80

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Make a one off donation by cheque to ‘Ageing Without Children’ and post to Ageing without Children, NDTi, 1st Floor, 30-32 Westgate Buildings, Bath BA1 1EF

Guest blog – A letter to … my miscarried baby

Thirty-two years ago at 16 weeks gestation you died inside of me. It had taken me a long time to get pregnant and to my knowledge I have never been again. I hated my body for a long time. I felt useless, worthless and less than a woman. I wanted to run away from the world but mostly I wanted to run from my own hurting self. With care and love and encouragement, from many people, but most significantly from my own mother, I slowly began to realise that even if I was not to be a biological mother I did have other opportunities and my life was not valueless.

It was not until after her death five years ago that I realised that my mum, your nanna, never ever focused on her own loss – no babies for me, no grandbabies for her – but always on mine, always on me. A return to study followed by a career in higher education have provided me with the resources to explore in detail the complex relationship between mothers and others.  I have been privileged to have been able to spend so much (paid) time researching perinatal loss, infertility and in/voluntary childlessness; issues and experiences that I and many of those I have spoken to believe to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Whilst grieving for you and for the other babies I began to realise that I would never give birth to my mum told me that one day I would be grateful to you for what you had added to my life. Deep in distress I could not then see how this could happen. I do now. I am grateful not only for the memory of you but also for how reflecting on what you mean to me has influenced the person that I am and the relationships I have.

I write this letter to you during the first World Childless Week (11th-17th September 2017) but in many ways ‘childless’ does not feel like an appropriate label for me. In my work and personal life I am blessed by friendships with some wonderful younger people, and in some cases with their children also. And yet, on a daily basis, I feel not only the loss of you but an exclusion from a group to which I am always peripheral. I have had my knowledge of childcare and of children and young people denied (despite an earlier career as a nursery nurse and nearly three decades of teaching and learning with young adults), been told that I will never understand my own mother as truly as I would if I had been a mother myself (which feels like an insult to the precious relationship we had) and been lectured on the benefits of having no parental responsibilities (as if I am not able to work this out for myself). Additionally, all of my adult life I have been, and remain, a mere bystander in more conversations than I could ever count. So, I am constantly cautioned (if only fleetingly), by friends, acquaintances, strangers, and when reading the news or watching a drama or film that I am different. On the other hand people often assume that I am a mother, and possibly now at 58 a grandmother, without asking or see me as available and willing to care for others because they assume that as a woman I have all of the skills and inclination and more time and less responsibilities than those with day-to-day childcare responsibilities. Although I resent this expectation as much as other ‘feminine’ expectations of women, whether mother or not, I do in reality want to nurture others and I am grateful to those who accept such from me.

Overall then my status as mother/not mother and as motherly or not is complex and I vow to continue to challenge simplistic stereotypes and to advocate for an understanding of all women’s reproductive identities, experiences and (non)choices. This I do as your mother and in memory of my own wonderful mum. Both of you are with me always, in my head and in my heart.

Gayle Letherby

5 things we can do to help people ageing without children

Over the next 20/30 years there will be unprecedented numbers of people without children reaching oldest old age. Policy and planning focused on older people being supported by their children/grandchildren in later life will not meet this need and risks leaving individuals ageing without children dangerously unsupported. Research has shown that smaller families in general means that wider family networks cannot be depended on to “step up” in the absence of children and that wider unpaid care networks made up of wider kin and friends do not substitute for children as health declines. This means that there will be a greater reliance on formal care services at a time when they have never been under such intense pressure.

The response of individuals  and organisations to this is understandably, what can we do about it?

Below are 5 suggestions that people and organisations can do to help

  1. Individuals and organisations charged with planning and delivering services for older people must make a far greater effort to understand people ageing without children and the issues that face them. It is not possible to design services that work if you do not understand the people you are designing them for. People ageing without children must be included in all coproduction and planning on ageing as a matter of course. We are always happy to talk to organisations who want to understand more about the issues facing people ageing without children
  2. Organisations need to review their services from the perspective of an older people doing everything entirely without support from family. This includes everything from how people find out about what exists to how they get their washing things in the event of unplanned hospital admission to creating a lasting power of attorney when there is no family to searching for a care home. Only then can we see how much family support is required to make services work and where we need to change things so it works for those without. Services that work properly for people without family support will work far better for people who do have family too
  3. People ageing without children need to be supported to come together both on and off line where they come together to form peer support networks. People ageing without children want to help themselves and each other and this weeks World Childless Week is a prime example of how people without children from all over the world can support each other. However, brilliant though the internet and social media are for bringing people together, they are not the whole answer; we know people over 75 are considerably less likely to use the internet. Local organisations should consider setting up groups for people ageing without children in partnership with AWOC
  4. The gap around advocacy must be addressed. People ageing without children have been very clear on their fears of an old age without a child to act as their intermediary and advocate in their dealings with care services particularly if they become incapacitated mentally or physically
  5. Everyone both people ageing without children and those who do have family should be helped to plan for their later life. Planning for later life classes, workshops or help should be as easily and widely available to everyone.

We shouldn’t have services and systems that are so complex that they require “navigation” or so inflexible and unresponsive they need to be “battled” but the sad reality is that at the moment we do. People ageing without children are hugely disadvantaged by such a system. Although some of these things suggested above take money, a lot do not or require only a nominal amount. What is far important is a change of mindset; a shift away from an assumption that there is family or family who are able/willing to help and towards a position that says “would this still work if this person had no one?” If it doesn’t, then the service is wrong.

I set up AWOC so that people without children won’t face old age alone

I have worked with & for older people for almost my entire working life (24 years & counting!). For the majority of those years, the impact of being without children in old age never occurred to me. Throughout my 20s as I worked as an advocate & advice worker at what was then Age Concern, it frankly never even occurred to me to have children. Right at the tail end of my 20s, I met the man who is now my husband but still didn’t see having children as a priority.

In my 30s I continued to work with older people, this time running a healthy living centre without walls for older people in Camden before going onto work at a national level at what was then Age Concern England. By that time I felt that I really wanted children but reproductive health problems meant it wouldn’t be easy.

In my mid 40s and still working on the age sector, I realised two things. The first was that I was never going to have children. Facing up to the fact that my husband & I would never have a child that symbolised our love for each other was & still is a very difficult experience. The second was that not having children around in later life was a serious problem.

Despite an almost guaranteed response whenever I say this along the lines of “well mrs x has children & they never lift a finger to help”, the reality is the vast majority of people who have children do get help & support from them in later life. It is true that some do not which is why AWOCs definition of ageing without children is people over 50

  • those who have never been parents either though choice or through circumstance
  • those whose children predeceased them
  • those estranged from their children
  • those whose children live far away
  • those whose children are unable to support them for another reason e.g. they have a long term disability or they are in prison

I thought however that it didn’t affect that many people. Although I was childless & knew a number of people who didn’t have children, & even had a figure of 1 in 4 women my age didn’t have children floating around my head, I didn’t really think it was that many people. As I had spent so many years in the ageing sector, I thought that if there were lots of people entering old age without children, it would have been picked up by one of the big organisations or highlighted in policy & planning.

One look at the figures however showed me that it wasn’t in fact a small number of people, it was already 1 million people over 65 and that figure was set to double to 2 million by 2030. That figure is in fact an under estimate as it is based on women who haven’t become mothers, and doesn’t include men who are not fathers (estimated to be between 21-23% & therefore higher than women) and all the people listed above who may have or have had children who cannot or will not support them.

I do not know why such a vast number of people remained hidden in thinking, policy & planning on ageing for so long but I suspect it is for two reasons. The first is that for many years, childless/childfree people have had no voice & no way to come together. That is no longer true thanks to the pioneering work of Jody Day of Gateway Women who has inspired a generation of women to come together, speak out & be visible around being childless. The second is the profound ageism in our society which makes thinking about being old so difficult for all of us. The default response to AWOC is “oh I don’t want my children to look after me” and yet 92% of all unpaid care is provided by family. If none of us want our children to look after us, why is it so many of them end up doing so? I would argue that it’s because we just do not want to think about it or make plans for old age. Collectively we struggle to acknowledge how much adult children do to help their parents in old age and because it’s not acknowledged, it’s easy to say “oh it’s no different if you don’t have children to help”

At AWOC we know that it IS different and we want that difference to be recognised, understood (not dismissed out of hand) and most importantly changes made so that decent care & support isn’t only available to those with children to help but to everyone

From Walk in Our Shoes – the story of 80 year old Robert

As part of world childless week, lovely blog on Walk in Our Shoes from 80 year old Robert

Designing care services and systems that don’t rely on family to make them work

Our blog for Independent Age’s Doing Care Differently series