A major new social trend, especially in Europe and North America, is the increasing number of people without children. More individuals than ever are childless, over 65, and living alone. In the UK, for example, more than a third of the population is over 50, and of those 23 million people, one in five is childless. This is a profound change, and one with consequences – especially loneliness.
Children as the Answer
Of course, children guarantee nothing. Many parents still endure a bitter and lonely old age, just as many single, childless people feel perfectly content. To put it crudely, you never know what you are going to get. Think of the largest families you know. Now consider how different the siblings are: one small and quiet, another tall and aggressive, and so on. Your child may not turn out to be the sweet, devoted little angel you expect.
A child may also have behavioral or learning difficulties. Take Asperger’s, for example, a condition that means poor interpersonal skills and little empathy. Others have a child with Down’s syndrome, leaving them dependent on the parents rather than the other way around. Even something like ADHD causes lots of problems. Then of course there are physical disabilities, either present from birth or experienced in adult life.
Life is unpredictable and often tragic. Someone may hope for love and support from their child only to lose them in a car crash. Then there is suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, and so on. For many, their children are a source of worry and pain rather than comfort and support.
On the other hand, some children feel no sense of duty or obligation. Indeed, even the most loyal and loving child may still resent the burden of ageing parents. Any experienced physician or care worker knows that elderly parents are often abandoned. Children also move away, sometimes starting a new life abroad. Others marry someone their parents dislike, or who dislikes their parents.
Obviously, this is far from universally true. The majority of children do make at least some effort to comfort and help their ageing parents. For a whole variety of reasons, however, many parents end their lives lonely and unsupported.
Reasons for Not Having Children
The key factor seems to be why someone did not have kids. According to studies, of those who thought carefully and decided not to have children, the majority have no regrets. The ones who really regret it, and who feel loneliest in old age, never found the right partner, tried to conceive but failed, or simply couldn’t make up their mind.
One possible explanation is that those who decide not to are psychologically prepared. They accept that there will be no children to care for them, and they adjust their life accordingly: putting extra effort into their marriage, cultivating friendships, building relationships with nephews and nieces, and so on. Those who wanted children but couldn’t, or couldn’t find the right partner, tend to resist the fact. Rationally they accept it, but deep down they cannot let go.
Loneliness also tends to be more intense. Someone who did not want kids passes someone pushing a buggy and thinks “thank god that isn’t me.” They experience a degree of loneliness, of course, but they will be consoled at the thought of escaping dirty diapers, of having free time to read, paint, take coffee with friends, and so on. Those who did want children, however, feel a knife in the heart when they pass that same buggy and think of all they missed.
Old age is experienced in different ways. Some age well, remaining active and self-sufficient until they collapse on the golf course at 85. Others develop a chronic illness in their mid-60s and spend the next 30 years housebound or stuck in bed.
Friends and family also make a difference, though quantity is not so important as quality. Some are fortunate to have brothers or sisters nearby, with nieces and nephews to whom they are close. Again, this is no guarantee. Plenty of people have a large extended family, but that doesn’t mean they are close.
The individual’s personality also plays its part. Someone sensitive or needy is going to have a harder time than an insensitive introvert who loves being alone. People who grew up in a large and loving family may also find isolation harder. The kinds of relationships people had plays a part. A woman who endured years of abuse at the hands of her husband may cherish her quiet and lonely life.
One of the main problems is the attitude of friends and neighbors. Raising children can be stressful and exhausting, and those who do often envy those who do not: oh, to have the time to read a book, make love to your partner, or simply watch a film! When the children are grown up, those same parents often adopt a vengeful attitude towards friends who never had any. They got to build a career and save money, so it’s only right they suffer in some way!
Another problem is the sense of alienation. For example, a childless man goes to the local bar for a drink with his friends. Soon, the conversation turns to online grooming, the merits of different colleges, and so on. In spite of his efforts to turn the conversation to politics or sport, they constantly drift back to their children. And when they do, the childless man feels more alone than ever.
To make things worse, childless people are often looked at with curiosity and even suspicion. Childless men are particularly vulnerable, and many will literally avoid children, even when they are fond of them, in case the parents suspect them of darker interests.
If you are to avoid loneliness, you must fill your life with people. All relationships, from your marriage to your daily chat with the postman, require time and effort. The upside of not having children is that you have this time. It may sound cold and mercenary, but invest that time wisely. If someone close to you is nurturing and kind, keep them close. Remember birthdays, for example, and take the time to help them through divorce or bereavement.
Next, avoid becoming dependent. In The Age Revolution, Dr Charles Clarke argues that the majority of illness and disease is self-inflicted. So do all you can to keep healthy. To put it bluntly, most of us would rather collapse and die walking to the post office than spend months in bed wasting away from cancer or diabetes.
Generally, people become dependent in one of three ways. First, some of kind of accident leaves them immobile. Be hyper-vigilant. Do not climb onto the roof to repair an aerial, or use a shaky old ladder to get into the loft. And be wary on cold, icy days that you do not slip over. What sort of shoes do you wear? Do they have plenty of grip? How often do you trip over things in the bedroom? Buy padding for your wrists and knees to absorb the shock when you do fall over.
Second, there is physical illness and disease. In How Not to Die, Michael Greger takes the most common illnesses and explains what you can do to avoid them. There are numerous books like this available. Buy them and study them. As Clarke says, there is no reason why you shouldn’t come home from a dance class aged 100 and die in your sleep.
Third, people go into cognitive decline and need others to sort out their finances, deal with home repairs, etc. Again, this needn’t happen. Evidence suggests that the more you challenge and stimulate your brain, the lower your chances of such decline.
But that means exposing the brain to new challenges. Literature lovers, for example, take up some demanding old masterpiece, like War and Peace or Tom Jones, in the belief that this will keep their mind sharp. But they are just using the same parts of the brain they have always used.
So expose your brain to new experiences: seek out new people, take up new hobbies, and above all learn new skills. For example, you could buy a secondhand guitar and take a few lessons. If you are an arty person, take a course in physics or mathematics; if you are a science person, read Byron’s poetry.
And try learning a new language. Again, push yourself. If you already understand Spanish, don’t take a course in French or Italian. Instead, try Japanese or Russian. You could also buy a book of puzzles and brainteasers and do a few every morning while you eat breakfast.
Nothing in life is guaranteed. And it is never wise to pin your hopes on another person – not even your own child.