Back in April, after the first few chaotic weeks of Covid19 in March had begun to show how all our lives were going to be changed irrevocably, I wrote to several colleagues expressing my worries about people ageing without children
“With the reliance on digital to e.g. register as needing shielding, shopping on line and/or family to find out information and access support particularly around food and medicine, there is a genuine fear that people ageing without children will fall through the gaps in the system and bodies will be found in houses in the weeks and months after this is over”
Since then, there have been numerous stories about older people and Covid19 in the media, mostly focused on the calamity unfolding in care homes but also about how grandparents and grandchildren were missing each other, how stressed adult children were struggling to support parents at a distance and how families were getting together over Zoom now that gran was on line. Nowhere did people ageing without children feature.
Paradoxically, the tragedy happening in care homes was more likely to be affecting people ageing without children though you would never know that from the coverage. People ageing without children are 25% more likely to go into care homes; some studies have estimated it to be as high as 50% yet their deaths were not talked about. Grieving children and grandchildren appeared on TV and in newspapers to talk about their loss, but no one talked about the people who died who left no one behind. Even as I tweeted that
“older people who die without family still matter, no one’s worth should be measured by whether or not they found a partner or hard children”
the sad fact was that that was entirely how older people’s worth was being measured by the media. If you were not someone’s grandparent, someone’s mum or dad, you didn’t exist.
Then came the news that I had been both dreading and expecting; people were indeed dying alone at home and lying there undetected for several weeks.
There was a strange lack of interest in the articles in asking why this was happening. What was it that linked these people? Did they have anything in common? Buried away in reports it seemed they did; they were older, lived alone and had no close family or any family. One might think that would lead to some realisation that there is a deeply invisible group of older people out there, living alone with no family and that it would be helpful to highlight this group of people. Instead it was put down to “the epidemic of loneliness”. However, it is too easy in my view to put it down to loneliness. It is about far more than that; it is about older people with no close family being completely invisible and devalued in our society.
The reality is that AWOC ‘status’ is simply not recorded or counted by services or institutions, we simply do not know beyond the high level statistics of 1.5 million people over 65 not being parents, how many people are ageing without children. They are and remain the most invisible group of older people in the UK.
The harsh truth is that we will probably never know how many people ageing without children have died during Covid19. And we should regard that as both tragic and shameful.