Julia Alvarado

Who Will Care for the Caregiver?

Julie Phillips and Sonia Alvarado--caregivers featured in Your Turn to Care--will be without the option of having adult children care for them if the need arises. They are part of a growing demographic in the United States: childless women.

Currently, about 10% of American women over the age of 65 have no children. That percentage will rise to 20% in the next decades when the nation's childless 40-year-olds reach retirement age. This demographic and cultural shift sees no end in sight as the U.S. birth rate has dropped to the lowest rate ever recorded. Traditionally, it has been the duty of adult children to care for their elderly parents. But who will be the caregivers for the increasing number of the childless elderly?

We asked sociologist and author Dr. Ingrid A. Connidis of the University of Western Ontario who has written the book Family Ties and Aging.

Dr. Connidis: "If you don't have children, you are more likely to end up in some kind of nursing home or care facility when you are very old. However, in the work that I've done, it seems people without children worry more about not having help when they're old than they actually experience. Clearly, childless people have a tendency to be more fearful of the situation than reality would dictate. Childless people may often have more financial resources because they have not had the expense of rearing children so they may be able to pay for more support.

People assume having children will mean having social support later in life. And yet when you look at childless people, they are often more plugged in socially. Childless people are more likely to invest in their relationships with siblings, nieces and nephews and these relatives may provide support later in life. I'd like to emphasize that it is a very much give-and-take relationship. Over time, childless siblings tend to give a lot to their siblings who do have children and their nieces and nephew. It's a lifetime exchange.

Childless couples tend to be very dependent and to rely upon each other, probably more than couples with children. While someone still has a partner living, if that relationship has lasted into old age - you have a strong ally in that spouse.

People from the Baby Boomer generation are much more likely to have siblings and that that may well mean that brothers and sisters will turn to each other to provide support as they age. But the following generations will face additional complexities. There will probably be an even higher percentage without children and they will face a more complicated network of older relatives due to rising divorce and remarriage rates. Society has yet to figure out what responsibilities are owed to aging step parents. And younger people may also not have many siblings - another source of support that won't be there.

People who are childless have had a tendency to build up other relationship so they may be on the leading cusps of new trends in aging such as setting up community housing with their friends. They may be more innovative in making such arrangements because they've had the time to think that through.

We may have to be a little bit more innovative about the way we think about social support because people are now more likely to stay in the labor force into their 60s and beyond. Not as many women are staying home to take the role of caregiver. In general we have to rethink how we approach aging and getting through the later stages of life."

Dr. Ingrid ConnidisIngrid Arnet Connidis is a Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario. Her work in the areas of family ties across the life course, adult sibling relationships, intergenerational relations, aging and policy implications has been widely published. Her current research focuses on family ties in mid and late life, including siblings, gay and lesbian family members, and step-ties.

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