13 August, 2011

When I'm old

In a few days, provided that the predicted snow-storm doesn’t close the airports, I will be visiting my mother.  She is almost 78, and has not had an easy life.  She is aging.  I have to repeat things.  Frequently.  Always a worrier, she worries more now, because she forgets to tell herself to stop worrying.  Did I mention I have to repeat things?  She is coping wonderfully since my Dad died six years ago, but does find it lonely at times, as self-sufficient as she is.  Whilst my sister lives nearby, I worry about my mother on her own. 

And this is when my emotions become confused.  I am glad that my sisters and I am around to care for my mother, whatever she might need.  But as I do more and more for her, and as she needs me to do more and more for her, selfishly my mind turns to my own old age.  Who will look after me?

This is an issue that is of real (public or secret) concern to those of us without children.  We worry about our old age.  Whenever there is a public debate about having or not having children, we hear the argument that you should have children at least to have someone “who will look after you in your old age.”  It is a point that always hurts.  No-one wants to be old, sad, vulnerable and alone.

Of course, in reality I know that having children is no guarantee that you will have anyone to look after you in your old age.  You probably know by now that my husband’s three brothers all live overseas, and if he left, then my in-laws would be alone.  Another reminder of this is my great-aunt and uncle.  They had three sons, all intelligent and successful.  And inevitably, they lived far far away, holidaying on yachts, hobnobbing with media barons, setting up their investment banks.  But Uncle Ray and Auntie Winnie rarely saw them.  And as they aged, my parents stepped in.  Even though they lived a three hour drive away, my parents helped out.  I still remember seeing my father help Uncle Ray out of his chair one day when I was also visiting.  I was struck by the comparison – my dad was in his 60s, and was vibrant and healthy and strong, and Uncle Ray was in his late 80s and frail.  And I was struck by my father’s compassion, his willingness to be there for his wife’s uncle.  I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of my father than that day. 

So I’ve always been a little sceptical of the argument that you have to have children to ensure you aren’t lonely or alone (the two are different) in your old age.  I’ve talked about this on a previous blog and my lovely blogger friends have decided we’ll all live on a commune together, pool our resources, and have a wild old age.  I rather like that idea.

I was even more comforted to find this article some time ago.  A study showed clearly that childlessness doesn’t mean you will be lonely and unhappy in old age.  In fact, it showed that the childless are more likely to have built support networks, wider friendships and family relationships around them than those who relied on their children to provide this.  That cheered me, and reminded me to continue doing this into my old age. The commune is really starting to sound like a good idea now, don’t you think? 

However – yes, there is a “but” to this topic - the study’s author reported that 

Childless women who believed it was better to have a child were much more likely to report being lonely and depressed than their female counterparts who said it didn’t make a difference.”  

And so I realise that so much of our loneliness – or rather, so much of our happiness - is dependent on our attitudes.  My mother doesn’t expect (or want) her daughters to be there every day, or to telephone every day.  And so she doesn’t sit there pining for us, she goes out and gets on with enjoying her life.  In the last 7-8 years, I have really come to terms with the benefits of not having children, and I am enjoying my life.  I am determined to do this, precisely because I don’t want to be a woman sitting pining about “what might have been.”  Making the best of my situation now, relishing it and enjoying it, can only establish a good foundation for a happy, busy, and content old age.  I owe it to myself.

That said, I'm still going to work on my nieces as a back-up!


  1. I'm trying to be the coolest godmother and aunt around for this very reason :-)

  2. Nieces as a backup: my friend Mary, who is childless for many reasons (choice, circumstance, etc) says she is staying in her 3 nephews' lives not only because she likes them but because "someone has to keep me in mind when I'm old." I have a feeling Mary won't have trouble with that, with my kids and her nephews and so forth. Our mutual friend Heidi, though, is a recluse, and I do worry about what will happen to her. She doesn't have those connections, of any sort.

    I remember as a girl, my grandmother's house having all these extra "maiden aunts" who were tangentially related to her. Olive, Betty, Fritz, Maria. My grandmother had 8 kids and might as well have someone else over for Christmas (but these women weren't just childless, but were unmarried in a time when I think that would have been hard to negotiate).

  3. Exactly! I am a good daughter, but I am a great niece. My unmarried, childless aunts were pleasantly surprised when I would visit them for no particular reason. They had a wide social network, and did not sit around feeling sorry for themselves. My mother, however, wants daughters who call her daily and want to hang out with her. But, she also raised us to be independent of her. Anyway, she spends a lot of time wishing she had a group of friends. I wish to be more like my aunts...but at this point, it appears my daughter will be attached to my side, limpet-like, forever. That's OK too.

  4. It is so sad that so many of us live away from our parents. My mother jokes that I are her "nearby" daughter, since we at least live in adjacent countries. I had two childless great aunts and I can attest that they and their husbands had peaceful deaths, with proper healthcare to the end, thanks to nephews, nieces, neighbors and friends. Not that it was easy on them. One of my aunts always regretted that motherhood was denied her.

  5. This is a topic I often think about. I read the article, or a similar one (if not the same), and I agree that so much is to such a large extent about our frame of mind. Being positive gives us a good energy that makes us want to reach out and engage others, explore new places, hobbies, books, music, opportunities, enrich our lives. I suppose childlessness (not by choice) is in one way similar to other things we want, but lack. Unmet desires, and a focus on them, I think can only attract pain, darken our thoughts, moods, and inevitably our actions or inaction. Fear is paralyzing. All that said... I have a wonderful nephew and niece which I adore, and I hope/think will be there for me as I have been for them... However, we never know what our future could be like, so I'm trying hard to live in the now be greatful for what I do have and cultivate those ties of love and friendship... The commune also sounds like a great idea... and I think with an aging population in so much of the more economically developed world, I envision their likes popping up everywhere.

  6. This is my biggest fear/worry too. Who will take care of me??? Who will be there when I am old?? Ross, my partner, has a very large, blended family and we love the little "cousins" in his family, and he says they will be there for us. And I hope he is right. It is a scary thought. And yes, I know you are right that no one can count on their kids being there for them, but you kinda feel like there is a higher chance.

    I have an "aunt" who never had kids, and although she lives far away, and I always make sure to send her cards and post cards, and try to keep in touch with her as best I can. Since I became infertile, I felt more of a loyalty to my family who is aging, especially those without children.

  7. In reading your post and the comments, I'm struck by an interesting thread. Those who have children expect those children to be there, regularly or by phone, and feel neglected when they're not. Those who didn't parent, however, invested their time in relationships without an implied pact and, in turn, were rewarded based not on obligation but genuine interest.

  8. Wow, thank you for this! (Here from Mel's blog). We haven't yet finished our infertility treatments, but it's very likely that we'll end up with no children and this was one of my fears, that I'll grow old and be all alone. What a great perspective!


  9. Pamela: so true. My parents have expectations they have not earned.

  10. Yep, I hope the nephews will think fondly enough of us to drop by the old folks home now & then. ; ) I saw a great article in the NY Times yesterday that made me think of you & all the others in our situation:


  11. Loribeth, I like the article! My mother lives in a street full of widows. They look out for each other, whilst still living independent lives. It's quite nice, and I rest easier knowing that she's not completely isolated.

    Yesterday a friend and I were contemplating old age and potential dementia. We figured we'd be stuck in an old folks' home, and could chat together all day, repeating the conversation every day completely unaware that we'd already had it multiple times. We'd never run out of gossip!