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Fifty Plus; Minus Kids

April 2011

Until very recently, the percentage of childless women hovered around ten percent.  That accounted for all childless women, regardless of marital status or how and why they became childless, and this level is traceable as far back as statistics can be found.  Very simply, it was the rate at which women were unable to reproduce.  All but a tiny percentage of women did marry and did attempt to bear children – until 1970.  That date coincides with the arrival into adulthood of the first wave of baby boomers and their unique ideas about how to pursue the adventure of adulthood.  Fast-forward to 2011…the rate of childlessness is now almost 20%.

The baby boomers were the first generation to truly liberate women from the role of wife and mother.  For most baby boomers in the U.S., graduation from high school led to a choice of whether or not to go to college.  That wasn’t completely new, but for the first time in history, women looked at that choice as more than just a stop-gap measure between school and raising a family.  College became more than a place to find a husband.  It was now the gateway to being able to support one’s self, no matter what one’s marital status.  Through the decades of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, women swelled the ranks of lawyers, doctors, engineers, and scientists.  They climbed the ladder of management (middle-management, at least), joined the faculties of prestigious universities, and eventually started businesses of their own.  No longer were they beholden to men to provide a livelihood for the nest in which they would raise their children.

The other sea change in this landscape was the introduction of the birth control pill in the early 1960s.  For the first time, birth control was almost guaranteed.  The early compounds delivered extremely high doses of hormones, which made the pill practically fail safe, even if you missed a couple of doses.  That completed the formula for the truly liberated woman.  She could support herself and she could choose the time and circumstances for bearing children, IF she did so at all. 

Of course, not all women are college educated, but the same phenomenon began taking place along a parallel track for women who were not able to go to college.  Although the EEOC was formed in the mid-sixties, and the equal pay act dates back to 1963, these laws did not acquire real teeth until the late 70s.  So, beginning in the early 80s, women, college-educated or not, were finally able to enter the workforce as equals to men in similar positions, without the threat of being dismissed as soon as a man showed interest in their job. 

As all these changes were taking place, many women began to question whether they wanted to be mothers, and men finally began to let women choose what they did with their bodies.  The culmination of all these forces was an almost-doubling of the rate of childlessness (measured by women who had not borne children by age 44).  This means that one in five adults will have no grown children to help them with the routine tasks of daily life, decision making, household relocation, or any of the other myriad things adult children do for their elderly parents.  Ask any 50- or 60-something who is currently taking care of their own aging parent and they will give you an earful of all the things they do for that elder.

Who will be there to help those of us who will live into our late 80s, 90s, and even 100s?  Do you know who will do that for you?  Your chances of living into a true old age are better than ever.  Women who reach 65 have about a 50% chance of living into their 90s.  Yes, some people age without debilitating mental or physical ailments.  But health problems of one sort or another begin to afflict people with dramatically higher frequency as the decades mount. 

The U.S. government GAO predicts that by 2020 the number of older Americans living alone with no living children or siblings will be 1.2 million. That is almost twice the number without family support in 1990.  Those now in their 60s and 70s, who do not have children, should start to think about their future as “Solo Agers.”  Recent studies among the elderly have, by-and-large, replicated the findings from traditional studies:  results confirm that the existence of friendships and social relationships (i.e., a support system) are critical in staving off feelings of loneliness and isolation in older age.  They are, in fact, more critical than the presence of a spouse.  And let’s face the fact that even if you are married, one of you is going to be left alone at some point in the future.

As we age, we will all need people around us who care about us and that we trust.  It’s also very helpful if they live nearby.  If you are a Solo Ager, you may want to begin thinking about how you can reinforce your social support system while you are still active and have lots of choices.  The most proactive step you can take now is to continue (or begin) growing your network of friends.  You probably already know people who are also Solo Agers, and they will likely be very interested in these ideas, just as you are.  Additional candidates might be neighbors, fellow church- or synagogue-goers, like-minded hobbyists, professional colleagues, or people you’ve known since childhood. 

Once you have found some like-minded people and you have spent time together and bonded as a group, you may want to think about developing some agreements – a kind of pact – for how you will care for one another in later life.  Here are some ideas:

Arrange to live near one another.  If you do not already live close by, research some communities that you can all afford and agree would be a good place to age.  There are already some examples of groups that have built their own communities, called “co-housing” (see Beacon Hill Village for an example), others that have gone together and purchased whole (small) apartment buildings or tri-plexes.  You do not need to go to these extreme lengths.  You may decide on a senior housing development that already exists or even a one-story tract of homes in a nearby small community.  Living next door is the ideal; barring that, get as close as you practically can. 

Create legal documents.  Consider using “durable powers of attorney for health and finances,” listing one another as successors to spouse.  That way, if you are the remaining spouse, someone who knows your and cares about you will make decisions on your behalf when you no longer are able. I also strongly urge you to consider having everyone in your group complete a “Five Wishes” document.  This is the most recent trend in legal documents that allow us to make decisions ahead of time for the critical junctures that we may encounter when we are no longer sound of mind and/or body.  You can find more information about the Five Wishes at http://www.agingwithdignity.org/five-wishes.php.  Five Wishes is used in all 50 states and in countries around the world. It meets the legal requirements for an advance directive in 42 states. In the other eight states your completed Five Wishes can be attached to your state’s required form.

Keep the door open. As you age, encourage (relatively) younger people to join your group and incorporate them into the planning.  This will ensure protection of the integrity of your decision making over time.  And/or hire a geriatric care manager to oversee your collective and individual situations and offer advice as your needs change. 

As the baby boom generation continues to age, new paths will be charted and new models for living will be invented.  This is a generation that is just now re-inventing retirement.  When the time comes, I have little doubt that we will also re-invent old age.  For now, I believe it’s important to keep our heads out of the sand and to realize that, like it or not, old age is coming – for most of us – and 20% of us are going to be navigating our way through it on our own.  Let’s start the inventing now and share what we learn with others in our boat.  Let the next adventure begin!