Older people, family and public policy
The assumption that all older people have family is deeply embedded in our thinking, policy and delivery of care. Think of all the solutions to issues associated with ageing that start with “talk to older people and their families”. This is largely understandable; 92 per cent of unpaid care is carried out by family members; however there are already 1 million people over the age of 65 who have never been parents which will double to 2 million by 2030. Still more older people are estranged from their children, have been predeceased by them or have children in no position to support them for a variety of reasons. Add to this the growing number of older people who are single, widowed or divorced (the rate of divorce in people over 50 is rising faster than any other age group) and it is clear that an unprecedented demographic shift is taking place. More older people than ever before are living longer but are not and will not be in a position to rely on family support.
There is often an assumption that older people without children have developed good relationships with wider kin and have strong friendship networks that can step in and substitute for family. Unfortunately, the research to date shows that this only works when older people are healthy and need short term or one-off support. If or when people’s health deteriorates and care needs increase, these wider networks fall away just at the time they are needed most.
The reality of care for people without children
Unfortunately thinking and planning on care has not yet caught up with this reality. For example, 80 per cent of older people with disabilities are cared for by either their spouse or child yet the number of older people with disabilities who live alone and have no child is projected to increase rapidly, rising by nearly 80 per cent between 2007 and 2032. Evidence shows that people ageing without children receive less unpaid care than those with children and consequently are forced to rely on paid for care yet access to social care has never been so limited. People ageing without children are 25 per cent more likely to go into residential care but the residential care sector in the UK is in parlous state. People without children are up to a third more likely to be carers for their own elderly parents but there is little focus on their specific needs as carers ageing knowing there is no adult child to support them.
As a society we must plan care around the population we have now and will in the future, not one from the past. Exhortations for families to do more not only belie the huge amount families are doing providing care and support but exclude those without.
So what can we do?
Firstly, we need to review our care services from the point of older people doing everything entirely without support from family. This includes everything from finding out information to getting their washing things in the event of unplanned hospital admission to creating a lasting power of attorney to arranging hospital discharge to searching for a care home. Only then can we see how much family support is required to make the system work and where we need to change things so it works for those without. Care services that work for people without family support will work far better for people who do have family too
Secondly, care services must make a greater effort to understand why so many more people are aging without children and the issues that face them. It is not possible to design services that work if you do not understand the people you are designing them for. People ageing without children must be included in all co-production and planning on ageing as a matter of course.
Thirdly services must consider their use of language. Branding services with “grandparent/grans/grannies” unless they specifically mean only grandparents should use them exclude older people who are not and never will be grandparents.
Fourthly, people ageing without children should be supported to form groups both on and off line where they come together to form peer support networks. People ageing without children want to help themselves and each other.
Fifthly, the gap around advocacy must be addressed. People ageing without children have been very clear on their fears of an old age without a child to act as their intermediary and advocate in their dealings with care services particularly if they become incapacitated mentally or physically.
Finally, everyone, both people ageing without children and those who do have family, should be helped to plan for their later life.
People ageing without children must be brought into mainstream thinking on ageing. By working collectively we can as individuals, communities and wider society address the needs of older people without children or any family support. Only by working together so can we do care differently for people ageing without children.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the blog’s author alone and do not necessarily represent those of Independent Age. Independent Age is not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied in blogs by external contributors.