What does your social support look like if you are single, old, and never had any kids? Do you even have anyone to be there for you? Too often, the assumption is that the answer is no. The best researchers, though, don’t assume. They ask.
A decade or so ago, a team of researchers set out to find about the social support networks of older single people with no kids, not just from one country but six. I’ve written about their work before, but it is worth revisiting now that the topic is getting so much attention under the unfortunate moniker, “elder orphans.”
I’ll describe the details of the study and its results below. Here’s a quick preview: The results are different for men than for women. The older single women with no kids are typically doing just fine. They are not isolated. They have solid support networks, often based on friends.
The 6 countries included in the research were:
- The Netherlands
- The UK
- The US
All of the participants were at least 65 years old. The key question that motivated the authors was whether these older people, who had been single all their lives and had no children, would have the kinds of restrictive social support networks that would leave them vulnerable in their later lives. For each country, the authors compared 12 groups: men without children, women without children, mothers and fathers – and within those groups, people who had always been single or were currently married or were previously married.
Five different kinds of social support networks were identified. The first two are the most limited:
- Local self-contained: people with this type of network are mostly home-centered in their lives, reaching out to neighbors when necessary.
- Private restricted: this very limited support network is typical of married couples who mostly look only to each other for support, only rarely connecting with locals for help.
Less restricted than the first two are:
- Local family dependent: people with these networks have relatives nearby and they rely on them when they need help or support.
In the last two types of social support networks, friends have important roles and other people do, too.
- Locally integrated: people with these networks have kin nearby who are part of their social networks, but friends and neighbors are also important to them.
- Wider community focused: People with these networks have no relatives nearby, though if they do have kin, they stay in touch with them. Their social support networks include friends and members of local voluntary groups.
As you might imagine, with 6 different countries and 12 kinds of marital/parental groups and 5 types of social networks, the results can be complex. Still, amidst all of the details, some telling patterns did emerge. Two of them characterize all of the countries except Australia (which I’ll discuss later).
First, adults with no children tended to have the most restricted networks – either local self-contained or private restricted.
Second, there was a big exception to the first conclusion. Women who had always been single and who had no children often had the kinds of support networks in which friends were important – either locally integrated networks (in which local kin and neighbors, as well as friends, were part of the everyday support system) or wider community focused networks (among those who had no relatives nearby).
In Australia, both the men and the women who had always been single were likely to have local self-contained networks. Among the other marital/parental groups, the wider community focused network was much more commonplace than it was in the other countries. The authors speculate that the huge size of the country, together with the low population density, may contribute to different results for Australians, but they don’t really know for sure.
So are they vulnerable – those adults in later life who have always been single and have no children? The men in that category are more likely to have restricted networks than men in most other categories. Even for them, though, the vast majority of them (except in Australia) have support networks that are not restricted. Specifically, the percentages of always-single men with no children who have local self-contained networks are specified in the first number in the list below. (I’ll explain the second later.)
59 for Australia (vs. 9)
31 for Finland (vs. 61)
28 for the Netherlands (vs. 36)
0 for Spain (vs. 18)
17 for the UK (vs. 43)
16 for the US. (vs. 30)
The second number for each nation is the percentage of married men with no children who have private restricted networks. These men mostly rely on their spouse and no one else. That’s a kind of vulnerability, too.
For the always-single women with no children, the answer to the question of whether they are growing old alone is a resounding no. They are especially likely to have locally integrated or wider community focused social support networks.
Wenger, G. C., Dykstra, P. A., Melkas, T., & Knipscheer, K. C. P. M. (2007). Social embeddedness and late-life parenthood: Community activity, close ties, and support networks. Journal of Family Issues, 11, 1419-1456.