The invisible million

An older man looks at the camera, smiling slightlyKirsty Woodard, founder of Ageing Without Children and a consultant, looks at the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on older people without children.

Despite 1 million people over 65 in the UK not having children, they are nowhere to be seen in coverage of COVID-19. Everywhere there are examples of how technology is connecting grandchildren with grandparents (“teach gran how to zoom”), think pieces from adult children worried about how they can’t get an online shopping slot for their self-isolating parents or heart-breaking TV coverage of older people in care homes waving to their children and grandchildren through panes of glass.

As always, older people who do not fit neatly into a nuclear family of children and grandchildren are invisible.

People ageing without children are not seeing themselves reflected in media coverage or in discussions on ageing. Living in a society where you do not see yourself featuring anywhere is incredibly isolating and can lead to huge feelings of loneliness. Independent Age’s In Focus report  has looked at the issue of ageing without children and identified that they “tend to be less socially connected compared to the average older person” and are more likely to live alone, have few close friends, not go out socially and have limited use or access to technology to connect socially.

This last one is especially concerning as life in the time of COVID-19 has most definitely moved online, with everything from registering to help from the Government, to ordering food and medicine to socialising taking place on the internet leaving people ageing without children even more isolated than others.

Are their positives to ageing without children?

Conversely the report also points out that many people ageing without children are living a good life in the here and now and are not thinking too much about what help they may need in the future:

“I’ve never had children, so I don’t miss having them. I suppose they could help with things, but at the moment I don’t really need much help! Ask me again in 10 years.”

There is evidence that until poor health or care needs arise, people ageing without children have stronger and wider social networks and are more involved as volunteers and in their local communities. Unfortunately, once health and care needs do arise, they are less likely to get the help they need from their wider social networks or from paid for care.

The role of community support

However, one of the good things that has come out of this time of adversity has been the rise of communities organising support. Whether COVID-19 mutual aid groups, local voluntary organisations or WhatsApp groups of neighbours, people have come together to help the people in their local area who do not have a family network to rely. If these groups and sense of community and neighbourliness can be maintained after COVID-19, they would be an ideal way to support people ageing without children.

Assumptions must end

Above of all, we must all recognise that society has changed and the presumption that all older people have family to support them must stop. Instead we must create a system that can accommodate the fact that society has changed, that more and more older people do not and will not have adult children and we have to completely rethink how older people can be supported to live their best later lives.

To do this we must ensure that people ageing without children are included and reflected in thinking about ageing and in wider society. The invisible million must become the visible mission; only then can we truly hope to ensure people ageing without children do not feel isolated and unsupported in the society we build after COVID-19.