"Don't Get Old If You're Childless." Really?

Reports say we’re headed for a crisis. Maybe it’s time for a reframing.

Posted Sep 10, 2020

How can we apply the nature of the forest to our own human nature? We seem stuck in a harangue about why everyone needs to have kids, how those of us without them are problematic.

Deb Fischer, used with permission
Nurse log
Source: Deb Fischer, used with permission

A nurse log in the forest (also called a legacy log) adds nutrients to seeds dropped into its bark from the mother tree. While the nurse once stood tall, she now lies on the forest floor, supporting a host of new growth. What she offers is different from what the parent tree provides.

In her wisdom, Mother Nature has devised a cooperative system for forests to survive. We humans reap the benefits—clean air, abundant natural resources, and respite from our workaday lives.

Likewise, we humans reap the benefits of diverse reproductive output. Parents and non-parents alike contribute to our collective health and well-being.

In August, the UK’s Office of National Statistics released a report titled, “Living longer: implications of childlessness among tomorrow's older population.” In a flurry of articles following its release, the popular press had a field day reporting its findings with hyped headlines: 

What strikes me as odd about these sensational headlines is something both demographers and those individuals covered by these statistics have known for years: No offspring will be caring for their dotage. Since the beginning of time, adults have lived in our midst who, for a wide variety of reasons, had no children of their own.

Call me sensitive, but especially during this time of social, political, and health unrest, wagging fingers at female elders for not having kids is harsh and unproductive. Sure, the demographic projections are on point, but I think we’re focusing on the wrong issue.

Instead of seeking to assign blame for what simply is, I see a wake-up call to us all to take stock of our plans for our individual and collective futures.

How well-equipped are we for what may come? Have we identified options and resources? Are they ready to mobilize? Answering these questions is what the business of aging is all about. Sharing our care is what love is made of.

Parents, too, benefit from widening their scope of care beyond progeny. Some people’s children are remote, estranged, incarcerated, or otherwise unavailable to shoulder oversight responsibilities. We don’t hear about them in the news. Even though not one of us is getting out of here alive.

Let’s strengthen our connections, share interests, and rely on one another. Little does it matter whether or not one had children. What matters is how we engage with those we love and who, in turn, love us.

We’re all free to form families of the heart, where bloodlines and heart lines circulate to offer options for elder care and companionship that may not be obvious. Everyone is well served when we make arrangements for our elder years.

Yet how seriously do we take the inevitably of aging? Less than half of all Americans have a will, even fewer a medical power of attorney. Caring.com’s 2020 Estate Planning and Wills Survey found that “24 percent fewer people had a will in 2020 than in 2017.” 

Sure, it’s easier to procrastinate expressing our cares and making arrangements, although that puts everyone in an untenable position when the inevitable occurs. Where do we start?

The Conversation Project began in 2010 with the express goal of facilitating frank exchanges about what we want and don’t want relating to our care. While most of us (92 percent) want to talk, few actually do (32 percent). So the organization developed an easy-to-use guide to pave the way.

Melvin Wahlin/Pexels
Source: Melvin Wahlin/Pexels

After my decades-long marriage was completed a few years back, I used the guide with dear ones who agreed to help me with my future financial and health care needs. Although I was scared to ask, everyone said yes. I then shared my intentions with my physician. I left these conversations feeling calm and well cared for, confident that my wishes were captured and heard.

Back in the woods, as seedlings take root and find purchase in the soil below, the nurse log decays and is incorporated into the forest floor. Growing trees are destined for different outcomes, many dropping seeds of their own.

Later, some will tumble to the ground and someday provide support for that which follows. It’s a beautiful synergy, one we can choose to appreciate and mimic.