No kids to care

June 24, 2013
Selma and Patty Bouvier, the aunts from The Simpsons
Selma and Patty Bouvier, the aunts from The Simpsons

In our dotage many of us will rely on our children to look out for us. But what if our children live abroad or interstate, or what if we don’t have children, what then?

It’s a question that keeps some of us awake at night, especially those without children. Most of us have been the mainstay for our elderly parents. But who will be our mainstay? Old people need an advocate, someone deeply concerned with their welfare. In the first instance, the job usually falls to a spouse. Then watchful children become the last line of defence against neglectful state or private care. But without children around, who will ferry us to the doctor, who will visit, and provide the sense of connection, and the treats that make life worth living? Our friends will be old, in uncertain health. They can’t be our insurance policy in the end.

There’s an unspoken pact between the generations: parents look after us when we’re young and we’ll look after our parents when they’re old. But can we push the envelope so that people feel some responsibility not just for their parents but for their elderly aunts or uncles, their stepparents and other relatives who don’t have children, or whose children are absent? Someone is going to have to look out for them.

It’s too much; it won’t happen, I hear you say. Given the choice a hard-pressed carer faces between feeding a mother mashed banana or an aunty, it’s only natural the mother wins out. Yet not always. In Sally’s case, she’s juggling her mother 88 and her aunty 92. Fortunately her mother is still reasonably independent. But her aunty, with no children of her own, needs company, a watchful eye, and some practical help to remain in her own home. And Sally is happy to fulfil the role. After 25 years living inter-state, she came back home to be the mainstay. “I always knew it would be me,” she told me. Three times a week she calls in to check on her aunt, and she does her shopping on the weekend. She has guardianship and power of attorney, and when she fronts doctors on behalf of her aunt, “people are surprised that a niece would be doing this.”

What does it take for a niece – and by extension any younger relative beyond the first circle – to assume a carer’s responsibility? I was keen to talk to Sally to find out if there’s an ingredient that can be bottled and widely distributed.

We’re going to need it. The number of people entering old age without children has grown significantly. In 1981 only 8.1 per cent of women aged 45-50 were childless; in 2011 it was 15 per cent, according to Australian National University demographer Ann Evans. These women are likely to live well into their 80s.  But it’s not just childlessness that can leave people vulnerable in old age.  Mobility in the global village means parents – like my mother – lose their children to the big wide world. The children are committed, long distance carers, ready to hop on a plane. But in an emergency, or for sustained company, they’re not on hand. Divorce leaves some men, in particular, estranged from their children and alone in old age. And other parents are deserted by their children for good reason, or no reason at all.

For most of the life-span, being childless can bring benefits and opportunities. Research shows childless people are just as well off, happy and involved in the community as others, and childless women are likely to be financially better off than mothers. The childless, even well into old age, aren’t sad sacks, researchers Pearl Dykstra and Gunhild Hagestad say, though this is less true of never-married men. But towards the end of their life, “the childless are in a vulnerable position,” they write.

So step in Sally. She always liked her aunt though was not especially close. For a start, their politics were poles apart. Not until Sally was in her 30s did she strongly identify with her aunt as a career woman and an intellectual (who’d married late and was widowed). “We do things out of duty but I also appreciate and relate to my aunt,” Sally said, “and so that makes it easier.”

And here are some other ingredients: her aunt is mentally alert, lives close by, and, “never having expected this care,” is very appreciative. As well, others are involved: community care workers, stepchildren, and Sally’s brother who lives interstate. Sally’s mother is very close to her sister so there’s no jealousy, only inclusiveness.

But here’s another factor: Sally is a lesbian who has a partner but no children. Contemplating her own old age, she understands the idea of “intentional” family, the one you consciously create and nurture that’s not necessarily defined by biology. Through this close network of friends, she’s “aunty” to many children, as well as to her brother’s. And she suspects down the track friends will tell their own children, “Make sure Sally’s fine.”

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