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Interview: Single and Childless: New Ways of Growing Old


Dr. Ingrid Arnet Connidis

Dr. Ingrid Arnet Connidis

In the words of singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’. This is especially true as a grey new world dawns.

In Family Ties and Aging (2nd edition, Pine Forge Press), Dr. Ingrid Arnet Connidis examines the family ties of older adults. Connidis is a sociologist at the University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario). A leading scholar in aging and family relationships, Connidis highlights voices seldom heard, including single and childless older persons.

With childlessness on the upswing in western countries, we ask how this new phenomenon will impact lives in the future.

AHB reached Dr. Connidis in London, Ontario.

Ruth Dempsey: So what do we know about the reasons older women give for not marrying?

Ingrid Connidis: Of course, there are many reasons for not marrying, some an active choice and some the force of circumstances.

For some of today’s oldest women, meeting the needs of their families in the wake of world events such as the Great Depression coincided with a time in life when they would otherwise have married. For others, the times made marriage and career aspirations incompatible, and so some opted for a career. Wartime created a shortage of eligible men for some women in the 1940s.

For women in their 60s and early 70s, greater economic security through employment made marriage less necessary although still desirable to many.

And over time, the increasing separation of sex from marriage has created other options for intimate relationships other than marriage.

But appreciating the challenges of a single life in a pro-marriage society, like our own, requires hearing the voices of those who are single. The area is ripe for research.

However, one of the dilemmas in focusing on whether people are married or single is that those who are single may:

  • have no active intimate relationships;
  • be in a stable committed relationship;
  • be in and out of intimate relationships; and
  • until recently, be gay and lesbian individuals who could not marry.

So, there is a vast range of experience included under the umbrella of "single."

RD: For most older persons, staying single meant having no children. Is that right?

IC: Yes, for most people of all ages, staying single means not having children, but this is especially true of today’s older persons. And, of course, in terms of having biological children, women have a shorter window than men.

More women today are opting to have children as single adults, but this remains an atypical situation for single women and men.

RD: So where do childless persons find support in old age?

IC: For one thing, childless people tend to be engaged with their families — parents, siblings, nieces and nephews — and develop a good network of friends. This is especially true for single women.

Single childless women tend to be more self-sufficient than their married peers and tend to get support and give support to their kin.

It is true that old childless single men tend to be more isolated than their married counterparts and than single women. Those who are childfree are more likely to turn to formal services for support.

And married childless couples rely very much on each other.

RD: What about older gays and lesbians?

IC: There are considerable variations among gay and lesbian old people. Some are out to their families, and some are not. Some have children from previous straight relationships, and most do not. Many have active ties with their parents and siblings, but some do not.

Close family-like ties with friends are often important sources of support in old age, but this is more likely among men and women who have been out as gay or lesbian for a long time.

Formal support services of various kinds still have a lot of catching up to do in order to make gay and lesbian individuals and couples feel welcomed and served by the services that are meant to be there for all of us.

Same-sex marriage has increased awareness that gay and lesbian individuals, as well as straight ones, may have a significant other who should be included in providing support and making important decisions regarding care.

Canada has become a better place for gay and lesbian adults of all ages. But we still have a long way to go to make inclusion a reality.

RD: The book says older persons see advantages and disadvantages to being childless in later life. How so?

IC: This is an important question because we too often assume that both being married and having children, are better than being single and not having children. Yet, each of these situations has costs and rewards.

Years ago the advice columnist, Ann Landers, asked readers if they had any regrets about having children and her mailbox was flooded with replies saying, yes, they did.

In general, parenthood can be very satisfying, but my research with Dr. Julie McMullin and parallel work in the United States finds that, when children have problems and when parents and children do not get along, this takes a toll on older parents’ well-being.

Meanwhile, those who do not have children do not face these kinds of threats to well-being and older childless people report enjoying the freedom, financial advantages, and reduced worry that comes from not having children.

RD: In the happiness sweepstakes, how do parents and single childless people fare?

IC: In fact, single childless people fare well in terms of their happiness and well-being later in life. And this is among a cohort of people who grew up at a time when having children was expected.

A lifetime of investing in other family relationships, friendships, work and other interests appears to pay off in a network of support and a range of engagements in social life.

There does remain a tendency to assume that one has missed something in not having children, but one can reverse that and say one has missed something in having them. After all, so much depends on how things work out in both situations.

RD: Childlessness is becoming more prevalent in western societies. What does this mean for families in the future?

IC: Clearly, family dynamics will play out differently with a growing number of adults who do not have children. Indeed, for a time it was unclear whether we were witnessing a real rise in childlessness or simply a delay in having children. Now it appears that both are true.

This means that there will be both more people without children and more parents whose children’s needs extend into later stages of their lives.

Childless adults are generally more available to help both older parents and siblings (and their nieces and nephews). In the future, their investment may mean support, in turn, from their siblings and nieces and nephews.

Having children later in life actually increases the likelihood of being sandwiched between the needs of dependent parents and children.

More childless people means a greater need for properly funded services. At the same time, childless persons may have resources to purchase some of the help they need.

RD: What about the impact of childlessness on men’s lives?

IC: Much depends on whether men are single or married. Thus far, straight single men appear to be less adept at negotiating family ties than are women.

Childless single men tend to have smaller support networks, but the evidence suggests they have strong ties with sisters and other relatives.

Also, as alternative ways of negotiating family and non-family relations evolve, single and partnered childless adults may forge stronger friendship ties in the absence of obligations to raise children. We probably have much to learn from gay and lesbian communities about the family-like relationships that can develop when people come together in networks of mutual support.