Altho this article is about elder orphans without children in the UK, the problem has increased for decades in Japan and, particularly if we slam the door shut to immigration, will become an increasing problem here in the US.
More than 1 million people aged over 65 without children are “dangerously unsupported”, and at acute risk of isolation, loneliness, poor health, poverty and being unable to access formal care, according to a report.
The number of childless older people in the UK is expected to double by 2030, putting huge pressure on a health and social care system that is already struggling to support the vulnerable, warned Kirsty Woodard, founder of the organisation, Ageing Well Without Children (AWwoC).
“Read any report on inequalities on ageing and you’ll see the adverse impact of being isolated with poor support networks, loneliness, poor health and a low income,” said Woodard. “Certain groups will be highlighted as being particularly at risk, carers for example, people from the LGBT communities, people with disabilities.
“However, one group you will hardly ever see mentioned despite being overrepresented in many of the above at risk categories is people ageing without children – even though they are disproportionately represented in every one of those categories.”
According to Woodard’s analysis, individuals ageing without children have worse health, worse health behaviours and higher mortality rates than parents. Those who are not childless through choice have higher levels of depression and anxiety as they age.
Additionally, around 90% of LGBT people don’t have children, people without children are 30% more likely to be carers of their elderly parents, and 85% of people with disabilities don’t have children.
Woodard found that people ageing without children have less access to unpaid care because that is overwhelmingly provided by children. “People ageing without children are trapped in a cycle where they are more likely to require formal care but struggle to arrange it by themselves because it’s usually children who arrange formal care for their parents,” she said.
The needs of those ageing without children get little attention, Woodard said. “Rising numbers of people ageing without children will have an impact on the health and social care system,” she said. “Their specific needs are so critical that they need a specific government policy to support them. Instead they are ignored by experts and researchers. They are put in the ‘too difficult’ box and ignored.”
Paul Goulden, chief executive of Age UK London, said the vulnerabilities of those ageing without children are a societal “blind spot”. “There’s an assumption that people have children they can rely on,” he said.
“But those without children don’t have that vital lifeline. If you don’t have someone who you can pick up the phone to, you are wide open for abuse, scams and generally suffering a poor experience of life,” he added.
Catherine Seymour, head of policy at Independent Age, said: “Because there is no data on this demographic and they don’t have anyone to speak up for them – precisely because they don’t have children – the risk is that this group will grow but continue to be unheard, with their needs unmet.”
Woodard said the issue was particularly acute for those living with dementia. “It can be encapsulated in the question I hear childless people with dementia asking: ‘Who will remember who I was when I don’t remember?’” she said.
Dominic Carter, policy manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, said the number of childless people living with dementia is expected to rise. “The number of people living with dementia is expected to rise to 1 million by 2021, which means there will be proportionally more people without children with dementia too.
“The care system for those living with dementia is overly reliant on family care,” he said. “If you don’t have family to care for you, you’re left to fend for yourself, which means risking becoming very unwell. We need a special care and health system that recognises this demographic.”