Despite there being well over 1 million people over 65 in the UK (for a comparator that is more people than have dementia), ageing without children still receives little thought or coverage within narratives around ageing.
Even though the demographic changes which have led to fewer people becoming parents is well known (the number of women not becoming mothers has doubled in a generation) , more families becoming estranged, families becoming smaller and people moving away for work, there is next to no thought given to people ageing without children in policy and planning on ageing. The Government, local authorities and the NHS still base their thinking around older people having family carers to help. Nowhere has this been clearer than during Covid-19 where the coverage has been framed around the importance of family contact and support for older people with only the occasional passing mention of older people who have no one. Why given the current and rising numbers of people ageing without children is this still the case?
Last week, the Centre for Ageing Better’s excellent report “Dominant narratives on ageing – Identifying the current discourse within influential sectors and industries” was published and one of the reasons for the ongoing invisibility around ageing without children quickly became clear.
The research, carried out before Covid-19, identifies the most used words and phrases around ageing across a variety of sectors and sources; political, social media, the charity sector, tabloid and broadsheet news, and advertising. Their findings were that “Family” is the 4th most used word around ageing across all sectors; in social media and online news it is the 2nd most common
The authors point out that in online tabloid news stories
“older people are commonly referred to with their role within the family rather than as an individual, with older women (‘gran’, ‘grandmother’) often featuring in the role of the carer”
And that looking at the world of advertising and ageing compared to the charity sector
“Words and topics relating to family –such as grandparents, ‘kids’ and ‘grandkids’ – are 43.5x more prevalent in advertising compared to age related charities. The words ‘kids’ and ‘grandkids’ are 64x more prevalent in advertisements than in sources from the ageing charity sector. This indicates a tendency for advertisements to present older people as a relative to younger people. Descriptions of family situations feature in some of the advertisements, making it more relatable to the audience, but these scenes often rely on stereotypes to tell quick, familiar stories about family roles”
The report also comments that:
“Dominant language used on social media posts related to ageing reveals a focus on family life. This theme contains commonly used words such as ‘loved’, ‘family’, ‘love’, ‘life’, ‘home’, ‘baby’ and ‘mum’. Looking at the context in which these words are mentioned on social media, topics emerge including birthdays, religious occasions, holidays as well as memories and commemorations to the lives of loved ones who have passed away. Older people tend to principally be represented on social media by their relationship with other family members and their role in offering advice, care, love and generosity”
It is clear that campaigns about ageing without children are up against a huge societal and cultural barrier, namely that individuals ageing without children are not represented anywhere in the public eye. We know from other minority groups over the years that seeing yourself and people like you portrayed or discussed positively really matters both in terms of your own self esteem but also in terms of being “seen” within society as someone/people who matter. If people ageing without children are never ‘seen’ then there is a double whammy for them in both not seeing themselves and having the view that they do not matter being reinforced. On a wider level because there is still little realisation of how many people are ageing without children ; although currently 1 million people over 65 do not have children, 4 million people over the age of 50 are not parents, no thought is given to portraying them in advertising or the media so it becomes a perpetuating cycle of invisibility and marginalisation.
Instead, it seems the only way older people are seen to be of ‘value’ to society is as grandparents or parents. The narrative around care home visits is an example of this. People ageing without children are at least 25% more likely to be in a care home; some studies have put it as high as 50%. However, all the discussion around care homes focuses on the importance of family visits with a very very occasional mention of friends.
How do we change this narrative so that older people are seen as having value beyond that of being a parent or grandparent?
Campaigns challenging ageism are growing and it is crucial that these campaigns explicitly include people ageing without children within them. The important part that older people play in society as employees, employers, entrepreneurs, volunteers, local councillors, trade union representatives must continue to be highlighted. Above all, people ageing without children need to be seen as a normal part of the community; this is not a small group of people on the periphery of society, the numbers of people involved mean we all know someone ageing without children. There are many ways to be ageing without children and those stories need to be seen and heard.
Not all older people are grandparents and not all older people can rely on family support when they need help. When it comes to ageing we must plan for the society we actually have, if we do not we run the risk of leaving people ageing without children not just invisible but dangerously under supported when they need help.