Loneliness – it’s not enough to be happy to chat, you have to be ready to listen too


Loneliness – it’s not enough to be happy to chat, you have to be ready to listen too

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The Jo Cox Commission on loneliness is now looking at older people and last week released a report based on a survey carried out on Gransnet. It seems useful to reflect on loneliness through the prism of aging without children.

When we were carrying out the research for “Our Voices”, one of the strongest themes that came through was that of invisibility. People aging without children do not see themselves reflected in society, in the media, or in reports on aging. Despite 1 million people over 65 not having children, they are nowhere to be seen. Often when talking to organizations concerned with age we get the response “Oh! I hadn’t thought of that” followed by “you know my friend/neighbor/colleague doesn’t have children and now you mention it, yes what will they do when they are old? Hmmm,” If people aging without children are invisible in organizations that are about aging, it’s not really a surprise they are invisible everywhere else. Living in a society where you don’t see yourself is incredibly isolating and can lead to huge feelings of loneliness.

In turn, this invisibility leads to a real sense of exclusion.

‘ I felt excluded because I wasn’t a mum, and now I feel excluded because I don’t have grandchildren.’

This sense of invisibility and exclusion is exacerbated for certain groups of people who are more likely to be aging without children, such as people who are LGBT and people with disabilities. People from black and other minority cultures, especially those that are seen as having a strong devotion to traditional family structures, are particularly invisible and their experiences marginalized.

Overcoming this sense of exclusion is absolutely crucial if we are to tackle loneliness in people aging without children. People aging without children can feel extremely lonely in a society that automatically assumes children (which is fair enough, most people do become parents) but has no ability to respond or often empathize with people who are not.

“Last weekend, my husband and I went house hunting. There are only the 2 of us but we are looking for a 3/4 bedroom house because I work from home, he often does too and because we’ve moved from Surrey to Somerset, people can’t just pop down to see us, they need to stay over. When we arrived at the first house, the estate agents showing us around quite naturally assumed that as a middle-aged couple looking for a 3/4  bedroom house that we had children. That’s fine, that’s a perfectly reasonable assumption to make.

“This would make a wonderful family house” she began and I agreed that it would but we didn’t have children so that aspect of it didn’t really worry us.

Instantly I saw it, something that people without children see quite a bit, first the nonplussed that there are people who don’t have children and then the panic because clearly she had her spiel all planned and it revolved around telling us about the family-friendly aspects of the properties we were seeing. She clearly couldn’t think of what to say to people who didn’t fit that expectation. I wanted to say that we were normal, that we were not weird or strange, or even that 2 people are still a family but I didn’t. I just marked it down as one of those things and carried on

And so did she pointing all the family-friendly features even though I’d already said once it wasn’t what we were interested in. I explained again we didn’t have children and were more concerned about location and space but it made no difference. On to the second house, she did the same, telling me how her teenage children would “love something like this”. The concept that we had no children clearly was too difficult to deal with, without children to talk about as far as she was concerned we had no common ground, I was different I was “other”, I didn’t fit into the accepted social norms”

Living in a society where you are different and where people generally don’t know how to react to that can engender feelings of terrible loneliness. Making friends and developing social networks are often based on shared experiences. For people ageing without children who don’t have the shared experience of children and grandchildren that many people have, it can often feel as if there is no common ground. This is emphasized all the more by the tactless, thoughtless, and sometimes deliberately hurtful comments that are sadly very common for people who do not have children.

‘I was having lunch with a friend, and she told me that people who don’t have children can’t look after old people, as they don’t have any empathy.’

One of our focus participants described how they had been called “a selfish cow” in their building society for not having children while our Facebook group often has posts from people who have been left feeling hurt, sad, or angry by thoughtless comments from work colleagues and even friends about their status of being without children.

Imagine then how hard it is to reach out when you are aging without children and feeling lonely. Imagine going to one of the many clubs and groups that exist for older people only for all the questions to start with “do you have any children?” “no” “awww that’s a shame!” or to sit in a group as people show photos of grandchildren around and you sit there lemonlike as you can’t join in.

One of the reasons why AWOC has developed an online community on Facebook and people have set up local groups is so individuals aging without children can find each other and know they can have conversations that don’t start with or revolve around children or grandchildren.

However, although it’s great we’ve been able to do this, what would be better is for people aging without children not to be made to feel so different and “other”. For there not to be assumptions about why they don’t have children bearing in mind that the best data we have at the moment shows that for 90% of people over 50 it was not a choice.

Being happy to chat is all very well, but if it’s not accompanied by empathetic listening and non-judgment then for people aging without children it won’t help.

Happy to chat? Definitely! just not about grandchildren because other topics are available.

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