Older People Living with Cancer

Peer advocates supporting older people affected by cancer


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Older people, family and public policy

Today’s guest blog is from Kirsty Woodard of Ageing Without Children:

The assumption that all older people have family is deeply embedded in our thinking, policy and delivery of care. Think of all the solutions to issues associated with ageing that start with “talk to older people and their families”. This is largely understandable; 92 per cent of unpaid care is carried out by family members; however there are already 1 million people over the age of 65 who have never been parents which will double to 2 million by 2030. Still more older people are estranged from their children, have been predeceased by them or have children in no position to support them for a variety of reasons. Add to this the growing number of older people who are single, widowed or divorced (the rate of divorce in people over 50 is rising faster than any other age group) and it is clear that an unprecedented demographic shift is taking place. More older people than ever before are living longer but are not and will not be in a position to rely on family support.

There is often an assumption that older people without children have developed good relationships with wider kin and have strong friendship networks that can step in and substitute for family. Unfortunately, the research to date shows that this only works when older people are healthy and need short term or one-off support. If or when people’s health deteriorates and care needs increase, these wider networks fall away just at the time they are needed most.

The reality of care for people without children

Unfortunately thinking and planning on care has not yet caught up with this reality. For example, 80 per cent of older people with disabilities are cared for by either their spouse or child yet the number of older people with disabilities who live alone and have no child is projected to increase rapidly, rising by nearly 80 per cent between 2007 and 2032. Evidence shows that people ageing without children receive less unpaid care than those with children and consequently are forced to rely on paid for care yet access to social care has never been so limited. People ageing without children are 25 per cent more likely to go into residential care but the residential care sector in the UK is in parlous state.  People without children are up to a third more likely to be carers for their own elderly parents but there is little focus on their specific needs as carers ageing knowing there is no adult child to support them.

As a society we must plan care around the population we have now and will in the future, not one from the past. Exhortations for families to do more not only belie the huge amount families are doing providing care and support but exclude those without.

So what can we do?

Firstly, we need to review our care services from the point of older people doing everything entirely without support from family. This includes everything from finding out information to getting their washing things in the event of unplanned hospital admission to creating a lasting power of attorney to arranging hospital discharge to searching for a care home. Only then can we see how much family support is required to make the system work and where we need to change things so it works for those without. Care services that work for people without family support will work far better for people who do have family too

Secondly, care services must make a greater effort to understand why so many more people are ageing without children and the issues that face them. It is not possible to design services that work if you do not understand the people you are designing them for. People ageing without children must be included in all co-production and planning on ageing as a matter of course.

Thirdly services must consider their use of language. Branding services with “grandparent/grans/grannies” unless they specifically mean only grandparents should use them exclude older people who are not and never will be grandparents.

Fourthly, people ageing without children should be supported to form groups both on and off line where they come together to form peer support networks. People ageing without children want to help themselves and each other.

Fifthly, the gap around advocacy must be addressed. People ageing without children have been very clear on their fears of an old age without a child to act as their intermediary and advocate in their dealings with care services particularly if they become incapacitated mentally or physically.

Finally, everyone, both people ageing without children and those who do have family, should be helped to plan for their later life.

People ageing without children must be brought into mainstream thinking on ageing. By working collectively we can as individuals, communities and wider society address the needs of older people without children or any family support. Only by working together can we care differently for people ageing without children.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the blog’s author alone and do not necessarily represent those of OPAAL (UK). OPAAL (UK) is not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied in blogs by external contributors.

Kirsty Woodard, Ageing Without Children

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By 2030 there will be 2 million people over the age of 65 without adult children

In this post, previously published on the Guardian blog, Ageing Without Children‘s Kirsty Woodard considers the implications for the care of older people who have no adult children to care for them:

In this country, care for older people rests mostly on the backs of family carers. 70% of carers are supporting someone aged over 65. Half of these will live with the person and the majority are of working age, mostly in their 50s, suggesting that they are the children of those they are caring for.

They are a hugely underappreciated resource.

The way family carers are treated is appalling; their efforts taken for granted, the expectation that they will undertake any and all tasks, from giving injections to changing incontinence pads. And all without the help and training given to paid carers, for the paltry amount of £59.75 a week – if they even qualify for it.

Without them, the health and social care system would collapse completely. But here’s the thing: one in five women born in the 1960s don’t have any children, and ONS statistics predict this will rise to one in four for women like myself born in the 1970s. I did try to look for statistics for people as opposed to women, but naturally in a sexist world, childlessness is seen as a women’s issue.

Kirsty Woodard

Kirsty Woodard

I attended a conference earlier this year about redefining ageing, hosted by Age UK. It was a very good event but I was struck by the fact that no reference was made to the large numbers of people who will age without children. I have spent 20 years working in the field of ageing and have never heard it mentioned. Instead, speakers use anecdotes about their children and grandchildren to connect with the audience, because it is assumed that everyone has children.

This isn’t to criticise people for doing this. It’s wonderful to hear that people have such great familial relationships, and of course more people have children than don’t. But the childless (or child-free depending how they define themselves) are going to be a big cohort in 20 years’ time. Why is this never talked about?

Why at conferences on ageing are people continuing to assume that people will have families to support them, when its likely that 20-25% of them will not.

A recent report from the IPPR predicts that, by 2030, there will be 2 million people over the age of 65 without adult children. Ignoring this issue seems to me utterly bizarre. The potential impact on services is huge. Family carers routinely carry out tasks unnoticed by the state – such as making appointments, running their parents to the hospital, ensuring they take their medication, doing the housework and so on. Who will do this for those of us without children?

I didn’t choose not to have children, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that for me, and tens of thousands like me, the state cannot rely on our children to look after us when we get old. And there will be more of us because we’ll live for a long time. Where is the forecasting on this issue? Has anyone at the Department of Health even thought about it? And why do we never talk about it?