The invisibility of people without children is a life course issue which has a drastic impact on policy around age and ageing

This is a small sample of headlines around Covid19 and older people.

The relentless focus on families being reunited or older people as granny’s is understandable but masks the reality of over a million older people in the UK today. The invisibility of people without children is a life course issue which has a drastic impact on policy around age and ageing. Just as younger people who do not have children and particularly those who are also single are not considered by politicians, so the fact that these people also get old is not considered by them either. Narratives around Covid19 and ageing remain deeply family centric, focused on ‘when you can hug granny’ or ‘when you can visit mum/dad/granny in their care home’. The fact that hundreds of thousands of older people are no one’s gran or granny and because of changing family structures may also not be aunts or uncles either, still seems not to have sunk in. There has been no mainstream media coverage of older people without family, and no focus on them in any campaigning save for what AWOC has been able to do.

This invisibility feeds directly into the policy problem on ageing; namely that thinking is predicated firstly on most older people being parents, secondly that the relationship with their adult children is strong and thirdly their adult children can offer help and support. The fact that so many older people are not parents, that not everyone has a strong relationship with their adult children and that sometimes adult children are not able to offer help and support is seen as a tiny niche issue affecting a handful of older people, as opposed to it affecting at least 1.5 million people over 65 already, and 2 million by 2030.

To challenge this prevailing narrative, we need to

  1. Ensure people ageing without children are understood. People age without children for a wide variety of reasons and it is important to understand why this is, the impact it has on an individual’s quality of life and to not make assumptions about how people have reached later life without having had children or without the support of close family. There needs to be awareness that some people ageing without children have faced stigma, prejudice and judgement which can make them wary of talking about their lives. We need to commission more research around people ageing without children to better understand how they experience the health and care systems, the coping strategies people have developed, the different paths to ageing without children and how we can reshape our thinking and planning to better accommodate this growing demographic.
  2. Ensure that people ageing without children are included. People ageing without children report feeling invisible and marginalised by society, unintentionally excluded from family dominant narratives and activities. Ensuring that people ageing without children can see that organisations, communities and society actively recognise they exist and understand the extra pressures that can come from ageing without children is hugely important. It is especially important to let people ageing without children feel they can talk openly about their concerns without feeling “shut down”; this enables people not only to feel included but also can help with practical conversations about how fears can be overcome, and plans made.
  3. Finally, people ageing without children need to be supported. In the absence of unpaid care from close family members, people ageing without children are more likely to rely on paid for care. It needs to be recognised that people ageing without children can need additional support to both access and use services, particularly at times when they are potentially more vulnerable than those with more immediate family (such as hospital stays, or transitions such as bereavement). Evidence shows that it is generally people’s adult children who find out about services, make initial enquiries and ‘shop around’, and deal with any problems or confusion that might arise. Overcoming the barriers that can prevent people ageing without children finding out about services and accessing services, maximising the benefit of having support and making comments or complaints if necessary are crucial.

If we can build on these 3 things, we can work towards a society that understands, includes, and supports people ageing without children which will also provide a better society for all older people.

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