Single people are accustomed to the scare story that they are going to die alone. Most have heard it so often that they have long ago realized its ridiculousness – marriage can’t protect both spouses from dying alone unless they both die at the same time. So I guess it is time for a new threat to supplant the old one. It has arrived: We single people – especially those of us with no kids – are doomed to become “elder orphans” with no one to care for us when we grow old. According to this new variation, we are not just going to die alone, we are also going to age alone.
There are some serious issues here, so I don’t just want to engage in mockery. But I do want to put the concerns in perspective, so that single people and people with no children are not needlessly put on the defensive once again, while those who are married with children feel reassured that they are just fine. And I also want to push back on those judgmental headlines, such as the one from Consumer Affairs declaring, “Free-living Baby Boomers at risk of becoming ‘elderly orphans’“.
The research, by Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, has only been presented at a conference, so I can’t do what I like to do – read the original report. Media reports, such as this one from CNN, claim that 22 percent of Americans 65 and older are at risk for becoming “elder orphans” who have no spouse and no children and so presumably have no one to care for them when they need help.
Even without a journal article to read, I know that the demographic claims are correct. More and more Americans are living single, and more adults – both single and married – are getting to their senior years without ever having raised any children. Even among those who do raise kids, family size is shrinking. That means that elders have fewer grown kids and fewer (if any) siblings and cousins and relatives of all sorts.
Who Is at Risk for Becoming an ‘Elder Orphan’?
Are you protected if you are married with children? Are you doomed if you are single and have no children?
The answer to both questions is no. If you marry, you could divorce or outlive your spouse. If neither of those things happen, and if you die before your spouse, that still doesn’t mean that your spouse will be there to care for you. Your partner might need just as much help as you do (if not more), or may not be an especially adept caregiver.
Those who do have kids (whether married or single) may also find that progeny are no guarantee, either. Grown children may be preoccupied with jobs, children of their own to care for, or other demands of adult life. They may also live far away.
Perhaps even more interesting is the research showing that when people get married, they become more insular. They become less connected to their siblings and parents than they were when they were single, and less attentive to friends and neighbors. Tellingly, these findings cannot be pinned on the demands of children – even those married people who do not have kids withdraw from family and friends, relative to when they were single. In theory, then, older single people could potentially have more people involved in their lives than older married people.
There’s no need to fall back on theoretical assumptions, though. There are data on people 65 and older from 6 nations: Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, and the US. Researchers asked which demographic categories of people were most likely to have restricted (small) social networks. They found that people with no kids (whether married or single) did tend to have more restricted networks. There was, though, one important exception. Women who had always been single and who had no kids, in 5 of the 6 nations, were especially likely to have networks that were not restricted. Their networks were especially likely to include friends. (The exception was Australia. However, a different study of even older always-single women in Australia found that they were especially active in social groups and as volunteers.)
In Part 2, I will describe what people are already doing to live well in later life. Here it is.
[Note: Thanks to Jessica Brown for the heads-up about the elder-orphan scare stories.]
Senior man photo available from Shutterstock