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"Most people don’t look after their parents"

There is a firmly held belief that older people are not helped, supported or cared for by their adult children. Equally, those with children can be quite adamant that they do not expect this. This belief is perpetuated not just by the public, but by the Government as well. Indeed there have been calls from successive health-care ministers for the public to do more to help not just their parents, but neighbours and friends as well.

But what is the evidence? Are older people not supported by their children as the government and many people in society claim? Below are some of the statistics around this issue:

  • The majority of the 6.5 million carers in the UK are looking after either a parent or parent-in-law.

  • A quarter of people aged between 45 and 60 provide active day-to-day support to their mothers and fathers, essential for them to continue living relatively independent lives.

  • Most of the care for older people is not provided by the state or private agencies, but by family members, at an estimated value of £55 billion annually. However, as the baby-boomer generation ages, a growing ‘family care gap’ is developing as the number of older people in need of care outstrips the number of adult children able to provide it. This occurred for the first time in 2017.

  • More than 80% of disabled older people receiving informal care and living in private homes are being cared for either by their adult children or spouses or all of them together. The ‘oldest old’ are predominantly cared for by their children, whereas married older people predominantly receive spousal care where their spouses are able to provide this.

  • The number of older people in care homes between 2001 and 2011 (the most recent data) has remained static at around 291,000 despite an increase of 11% of people over 65, from 8.3 million to 9.2 million.

The facts show that, contrary to what the public or the Government seem to think, adult children are not routinely abandoning their parents to look after themselves or, as the media often like to describe it, ‘dumping them in a care home’. Caring for an elderly parent is hard, time-consuming and exhausting and yet every day millions of people up and down the country are doing it.


"People who don’t have children don’t need to worry because they can afford to pay for private care with the money they saved on not raising children"

There is a widely held view that people ageing without children have plenty of disposable income and can throw money at the problem of their care and support when they need it.


However, just like older people with children, older people without children encompass a wide variety of backgrounds, employment history and income. Moreover, people ageing without children include people who may well be parents, but who are estranged from their children or have children who are not able or willing to help them.


Even for those who are not parents, not having had children doesn’t mean that they have a massive disposable income in later life. Some people will have spent many thousands of pounds on infertility treatments, while others will have been carers for their own parents with all the impact that has on their employment opportunities. Some people actively chose not to have children because they couldn’t afford it and many people ageing without children are also single, supporting themselves alone and with no capacity to save.

Paying for care is only half the issue, the real problem lies in the lack of advocacy, someone to research, arrange and manage care and to deal with the daily administration issues that arise. You may be in the fortunate position to have funds to pay for your care, but if you have dementia and no one to curate your care, having money is not going to help you.

"Their husband, wife or partner will support them even if they don’t have adult children"

Many people ageing without children don't have a husband, wife or partner. Even if they do, that person may also have health issues or become increasingly frail. It cannot therefore be assumed they can provide the same support as adult children.


Also, to state the obvious, at some point one half of  the couple will predecease the other. 50% of people aged over 75 live alone.

The absence of children is not a disadvantaged situation when health is good, but when someone becomes frail and loses their independence in carrying out daily living activities, childlessness becomes a problem.


The worst situation in terms of the availability of informal support is clearly that of the frail elderly who are both childless and unmarried or widowed particularly if they are men.

"People may not have children, but they surely have other family to step in"

People ageing without children may develop stronger ties with other family members, such as their siblings and cousins and, along the generational line, nephews and nieces.


However, those ageing without children may not have such family members nor the kind of relationship with them which enables them to call upon or rely on them.

The increase in the numbers of people ageing without children has also led to the rise of the so-called ‘bean pole family’. This occurs when a family has more generations with living members, but fewer members in each generation.


The impact of this is that more people are growing old, not only without children, but also without siblings, nephews or nieces. Research has shown that people ageing without children are less likely to have unpaid care support when their health deteriorates.

"Their friends will help"

The assumption that people without children create a substitute or surrogate family of close friends to whom they are able to turn or rely on when they get old or in moments of crises is an enduring comfort blanket.

Childless people may compensate for the absence of their own children by extending their networks to neighbours and friends and by getting more involved in community activities.


However, as the need for support increases, these compensatory arrangements may work only partially or not at all.


When frail and the limitations in their ability to carry out the activities of daily living are increasing, childless people receive much less support than parents,


Also, as the Campaign to End Loneliness has shown us, many people do not have friends or wider support networks and not having children is a major risk factor in loneliness. 


On forums for both the childless and childfree, many talk about how their friendships have not survived friends having children as their lives change irrevocably. Even if people do have lots of friends, they tend to be of a similar age to themselves and therefore ageing at a similar rate.


The help and support that groups of friends can offer in their 50s and 60s is going to be different to what they can offer in the 70’s, 80s and beyond.


As people age, the role of their friends in providing care and support will change, and for the oldest old, the number of friends will decrease as their generation die.

"I just assumed you didn’t want children"

There is very little research on post-fertile women (and none at all on men) on why they didn’t have children.


However, it has been shown that 10% of women made a positive choice not to have children, 10% were unable to do so for medical reasons and 80% are childless due to other circumstances, for example, they couldn’t find a suitable relationship to bring children into. This has been termed ‘social infertility’.

If someone never wanted children and has reached later life without them, then they may feel they have lived the life they wanted. However, for people who desperately wanted children and have reached later life without them, they may not feel they have lived the life they wanted and in addition to all the issues identified facing those ageing without children, there may also still be grief their childlessness.


This may particularly be the case as their friends and family members become grandparents and great-grandparents.


It is wrong to assume it was someone’s choice not to have children and, even if it was, choosing not to have children does not negate their right to worry about their old age and who will speak up for and support them.

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