Growing older and becoming anonymous
One of the most pernicious aspects of ageing is the assumption that once someone is older, certainly past 65, that they can be treated as an amorphous lump labelled “older people” or “the elderly”. There’s no need to differentiate between them as individuals or highlight the infinitely different life experiences they will have, so they can be thought of as a single entity that all think, act, vote, in the same way, have the same needs and behave in the same way.
Why is parenthood a given?
One of the most baked-in assumptions of later life is that all older people are parents and grandparents and all have this in common. However, one of the many consequences of there being more people ageing without children is that more and more people are not, and never will be, grandparents.
1 in 5 people over 50 have no children and therefore no grandchildren.
In addition, there are many older people who do have children but those children will never be parents, and therefore who will also not be grandparents. Within that, 1 in 5 are people who do not fit into accepted society norms in other ways eg, people from the LGBT community for example. Up to 90% of these people are estimated to be ageing without children yet frequently report when they receive care either at home or in a residential setting that they feel they need to invent wives/husbands/family in order to fit in and be accepted.
However the default assumption in our society that all older people are grandparents remains firmly ingrained. The words “gran”, “granny” and “granddad” are routinely used to describe older people whether or not they actually are grandparents. We wouldn’t use the terms mother/father/parent to describe anyone who is an adult but it seems acceptable to cloak all older people as grandparents.
For example, groups that are actually aimed at all older people are prefaced with “gran” or “nanas” which in reality can be as excluding to non grandparents as services labelled mum/dad/parent/family are for people who are not parents. The problem with this narrative though is deeper than people feeling excluded or as if they don’t belong.
The more fundamental problem is that by automatically pigeonholing all older people as grandparents it allows the narrative that all older people have family to help and support them to go unchallenged.
When family is government policy, people miss out
Over the last few years, government pronouncements on the need for family to do more to support their parents and grandparents have come with monotonous regularity. As social care continues to be viewed as an auxiliary of the NHS, with no significant new funding on the cards and a green paper that’s been delayed again, it is unlikely that these pronouncements will change.
However, there is virtually no recognition of the large numbers of older people for whom family support is simply not an option either because they don’t have one or because their family is unable or unwilling to help.
Already 1.2 million people over 65 are not parents and by 2032, the number of single people with disabilities and no children will rise by 80% to around 850,000 people.
This leaves people ageing without children in the unenviable position of being unable to rely on their children for practical support and therefore needing more support from formal care at a time when accessing formal care has never been more difficult.
Research shows that even though people ageing without children need and rely more on formal care than those with children, they are less likely to be able navigate their way through the health and care system because they have no children to advocate for them, and therefore are less likely to get help when they need it.
We know that one result of this is that people ageing without children are 25% more likely to go into residential care at a younger age and with a lower level of dependency.
A sobering thought given most people prefer to stay in their own homes and the parlous state of the residential care market place.
How do we challenge this narrative?
Firstly we need to see older people as people in their own right and strop framing them as first and foremost someone’s mum or someone’s grandfather. Older people matter as all people do, beyond whether or not they have children.
Secondly we need to accept the huge role that children play in the care of their parents. There is a great deal of cognitive dissonance where society as a whole routinely insists that older people are left to manage alone by their families while at an individual level, in the vast majority of cases, doing all they can to help their own parents.
Unless we are realistic about how much care and support adult children provide, we will not see the huge gap left when there are no children.
Thirdly, and this is difficult, health and care services need to realise how much they rely on adult children to not only fill gaps in services but to liaise between services. Integration of health and social care remains, apart from a few pockets, an unrealised dream and services fall back on family to manage the bureaucracy of care. The number of phone calls, following up, information gathering and passing of messages back and forth that is done, relieves health and social care staff of a great deal of the work they would otherwise have to do. The worry is that for people without children to do this, no one will do it and people ageing without children will be left to fall between services.
The risk of accepting the status quo
The demographic shift in ageing we are at the beginning of living through (with the numbers of older people who are not parents doubling in a generation) requires us to rethink all of our assumptions about ageing and people’s life experiences.
We cannot go on as if nothing has changed – as though all older people are grandparents or parents and have adult children around to help them.
This is simply no longer the case and if we don’t recognise this, we are at risk of perpetuating ageist stereotypes (that being old equals being a grandparent which in turn equals having family to help), leaving those that do not fit this stereotype out in the cold.
Kirsty Woodard, Founder of Ageing without Children
Have you been affected by these issues?
If you have been affected by any of the issues described in this blog, or simply need someone to reach out to, you can call Independent Age’s freephone helpline for information and advice on 0800 319 6789.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Independent Age.