In January 2016 I published a tribute to my gay brother and his partner and their journey with terminal cancer, entitled Goodnight Doll.
My motivation was to share with others their love story and dedication to each other through the good and the bad days. However, their story has made me aware of a much bigger issue that affect nearly 1 million people in the UK and is set to increase dramatically in the years to come.
Our stories about who we are, whom we have loved and lost, our successes and failures are preserved by the people around us. We automatically assume these people include our children and grandchildren as well as our friends and family. However, there are many people ageing without children who are acutely aware of such a loss of legacy. This was another motivating factor in publishing my tribute to my brother and his partner, namely to preserve their legacy.
It is not only the LGBT community who has known the reality of being childless in a family oriented community, but also the increasing number of baby boomers in particular who are ageing without children.
The political rhetoric during the recent UK election campaign and the spotlight on social care made reference to “older people and their families”, “selling the family home”, “older people and their relatives” and “families must do more”. The assumption being that everyone will age surrounded by a family. Who are these “hard-working families” who will shore up the crisis in social care? If you are not part of such a family, who will fight your corner on your behalf?
Various statistics predict that by 2030 2 million people over the age of 65 will be without children. Despite the significant demographic shift it has largely been ignored in debates on ageing. As with any complex issue, there are many factors that contribute to this.
Being childless remains a taboo subject in many cultures. As a woman you have not fulfilled your duty if you have not produced any offspring whether that was by conscious choice or not. Childless men around children are labelled as suspect. An adult without children in most societies means you live on the margins of what is considered ‘normal’.
However, having children is certainly no guarantee of social support in old age. My mother is testimony to this having lost both her sons and one daughter (me) living on the other side of the world. It is also true that in some cultures the reason people have children are to have an insurance policy for their old age.
Society at large does not value older people who are seen as a burden on society. The abuse of older people in hospitals and care homes are regularly featured in the media. The assumption of society and politicians, as highlighted by the recent UK election campaign, is that children will fill the gap of social care for the elderly. The unspoken expectation is that children will pick up the slack. But what if you don’t have children? Who picks up the slack then?
The charity, Ageing Without Children, suggests that the fears of many people ageing without children are justified. The fear that there will not be anyone to speak for them or that they will be ignored or mistreated in a home or by the system, is real and valid. They continue to be an invisible group ignored by society and policy makers alike.
A further erroneous assumption is that older people will be supported by ‘friends and family’. It is a reality for many people that their friends are equally ageing and in need of the same support. Furthermore, families have become much smaller and many elderly people are likely to find themselves without any immediate family or family living too far away to offer any form of care or assistance.
As an incurable optimist, I suggest the best we can do is to put steps into place to support us in our old age while we can and whatever our personal circumstances may be. Then get on with living and making the most of each day and the blessings they offer.