The United Kingdom is worryingly unprepared for a huge increase in the childless elderly.   The Office of National Statistics (ONS) warned this month that the projected increase is likely to make the already “substantial” unmet need in the social care sector even more dire.

Unmet care needs are defined as people who require help with at least one activity of daily living such as dressing, eating or taking medicines, who do not receive help with this activity.  Currently 41% of those aged 80 years and over already have unmet needs.

According to new data released this month by ONS, the number of women aged 80 without children is projected to triple over the next 25 years.  There are currently estimated to be 20,892 childless women aged 80 in England and Wales and by 2045 the number is projected to grow to 66,313, with similar numbers of childless men.

Some of the reasons for more women remaining childless included a greater emphasis on higher education, work and career and changing attitudes towards family and children. 

It is most often children that help out with the care of adults aged 85 and older.  Thus, an increase in people with no children will hugely increase the demand for formal social care. 

It is also children who are most likely to watch out for their parents even when they are in formal care.  Carolyn writes this week of a friend who was not allowed into her mother’s nursing home during a Covid-19 lockdown period.  Her mother died during that period from an infection that was not picked up by staff.  She herself would have identified the infection and had it treated straight away, just as she had many times before.

According to the study the elderly with children also benefit from the social relationships and support of their children.  Of parents aged 70 years and over in the UK, 47% regularly receive help from a child not living with them, and 46% give help to their children with things such as lifts, shopping or financial help. Those without children do not have access to this giving and receiving of help and do not benefit from the regular social interaction and support structure that having children can provide.

What will all this mean for the dignity and quality of life of the increasing numbers of childless elderly?

Helen Walker, chief executive of Carers UK, comments:

“Given there is already huge unmet need for formal care in this country, it is staggering to think about the sky-high level of demand that will be placed on our care system and unpaid carers in the next 25 years if urgent action isn’t taken by the Government.”

Catherine Foot, Director of Evidence at the Centre for Ageing Better, spoke to Sky News commenting that society must “wake up” to the implications of an ageing population:

“As these figures show, the number of people entering later life without children is set to dramatically increase in the years to come – with serious knock-on effects on the demand for social care. Without action to fix our social care system, we risk sleepwalking into a crisis.”

Addressing the future needs of the childless will not be easy. Once again, there is a pressing need for motherhood to be deeply valued alongside the many other contributions that women make to society.  Raising children is harder when it is not. The repercussions of chronic low fertility continue to echo through all of society.

In the short-term though, society needs to be thinking now about how greater numbers of elderly people will be enabled to live with dignity and high-quality care in the years to come.

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Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...