Parents with no surviving children: “Aging without children”

The other day The Guardian newspaper published an interesting article on “aging without children”. The author was from a charity I had never come across before: “Aging without Children” (AWOC)

The article posed the question:

Who will support people who are ageing without children?

By 2030, a quarter of people in the UK will get old without having children. Measures need to be put in place to fill the care gap

A good question, one that is often discussed amongst those of us who are members of the subgroup of The Compassionate Friends called “Parents With No Surviving Children / Childless Parents”.  In other words, those of us who had a child or children, but lost their sole child, or lost all of their children.

I am one of those latter, having lost my son aged 3 to a genetic condition in 1982, and my daughter aged 30 in 2011.

I had a look at the AWOC website and was quite interested to see the discussions that are evidently going on around this issue of facing older age without children. They mentioned that the decision not to have children, or being unable to have children, as the reasons for facing a childless future, so I wrote and brought their attention to us, the third group: “Parents with no surviving children”,  which they acknowledged immediately and kindly encouraged me to attend their upcoming London conference (I hope I will be able to).

Here are some of my thoughts on the issue. No matter the reason for it, facing your senior years without a younger generation to support you is going to have practical and emotional consequences, as the article above describes. But I think it’s worth mentioning there are a few additional layers for those of us who are childless after being parents.

One is the heartbreak of shattered expectations. We miss our children and expect to spend our lives watching them grow up and get on with their lives. When we were new parents, I can’t imagine many of us sat there and thought, “oh goodie, I’ve got someone to take care of me when I get old.” You don’t consciously think that far ahead. But as the years go by, you hit upper middle-age, your child/children are now adults, getting jobs and taking care of themselves, there is an unconscious picture evolving of how your latter years will involve your child/children around you. Maybe you even talk about it. It’s generally a nice thought.

And then you switch on the TV and there’s  Escape to the Country, or any one of those myriad find-me-a-new-house programmes, and the couple need a place with a granny annex “For our mum when she gets older,” or they need a place close to family so gran can visit the kids easily, etc., etc.

And then you watch Antiques Roadshow, or any one of those myriad how-much-is-this-old-stuff-worth programmes, and you wonder, “who’s going to get my stuff or will it all end up in the tip?” or “Nobody is ever going to be there showing off their family heirloom”. And you wonder, well what am I going to do with those things that I treasure but nobody else will care about? And this is where Parents With No Surviving Children (PWNSC) might have more of a problem than other people aging without children, as we have probably got a lot of our child/children’s stuff that we’re keeping and treasuring for the memories they hold. (I’ll go back to that in a minute.)

I have arthritis and periodically need to visit the hospital for check-ups and physiotherapy. My daughter Catherine lived in another city but sometimes her visits to us coincided with one of my hospital appointments. I remember her sitting in the waiting room, reading a magazine and having a coffee, and being there when I got out. Those are precious memories now when I’m back at the hospital, but perhaps those memories also make me very aware of what’s going on. Sometimes I see someone elderly, being pushed in a wheelchair by their daughter or son. What do we do when we are incapacitated and there is no son or daughter?

The interplay of generations is part of life. It’s a beautiful thing, and the way it is supposed to be. We loved and cared for our babies/children, not asking anything in return, but unconsciously expecting that in later years, they would be our comfort.  Even the Bible talks over and over about “children’s children”: “Children’s children are the crown of old men.” Well you can’t have grandchildren if you haven’t got children, and if you do have children, there is no guarantee of having grandchildren… but if you’ve had children…

So that’s shattered expectations.

Another factor that I think makes PWNSC’s childlessness hard to bear is that we feel as though we are the guardians of our child/children’s memories. Chances are there are many other people who also remember our child/children, especially if they were teenagers or adults – their partners, friends, work colleagues – loads of people who their lives touched. But people “move on.” A partner will likely find someone else. Friends make new friends. The workplace has a high turnover. Whereas for us, there is and can be no replacement. Our children were part of us, they still are part of us.

Us PWNSC’s tend to hold onto our children’s things as a link to their memory. I have my daughter’s dining table, sofa and rug in the living room. I only just sold her bike (another story for another time). I have every little picture she made me and every gift, the small ceramic pot, the ornamental swan, every birthday and Christmas card. These are items with no value to anyone but me. I treasure them now. But when I’m gone…

I can’t even imagine being parted from these items while I live. How could I ever go into a care home? Too much stuff!

There are no easy answers, though I’m glad to see that “Aging without Children” is at least discussing the questions.

This is becoming a very long post so I’ll end it here and continue later, but before I go: If anyone reading this is a “childless parent” or knows someone in that position, then I’d recommend this leaflet produced by The Compassionate Friends. Very helpful.

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2 thoughts on “Parents with no surviving children: “Aging without children”

  1. Pingback: Loss, cancer, continuation | A Valley Journal

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