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Ageing without children

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approaches to dementia care, arts and theatre, dementia awareness
Zena and associates

Appearing in photo from left to righ are: Zena Aldridge (Admiral Nurse Research Fellow); Karen Harrison Dening (Head of Research & Publications, Dementia UK); Sue Lister, MBE, (AWOC) and Ann Murray (AWOC).

Childlessness is the state of people – men and women – not having children. Childlessness may have personal, social or political significance; some people make the decision not to have children; it is estimated that the majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people do not have children. Naturally there are researchers and theorists that are inquisitive about this human phenomenon. The researcher Thomas Baudin and his colleagues (in 2015 study) took a sterile and practical view in stating there to be several ‘categories of childlessness’:

  • Natural sterility which randomly affects an individual(s).
  • Social sterility, which can include poverty driven childlessness, or an endogenous sterility where fertility has been affected by poor living conditions.
  • People who are childless by circumstance and/or choice; this could include people who are childless because they have not met a partner with whom they would like to have children, decided too late to have children so affected by advanced maternal age, or because they suffer from certain medical issues, such as endometriosis that make it difficult for them to conceive.
  • People who are childless by choice; deciding not to have children is a process that takes place in the context of other life events, particularly partnerships.

Further, they go on to say that the first three categories can be seen as "involuntary childlessness". With the fourth often called "voluntary childlessness".  Now I am sure many would argue that this is perhaps a simplistic view and that there may be many more reasons and rationales for childlessness.  However, that is not the purpose of this blog but rather to consider some of the long-term issues following a decision not to have children.

Now I can wax lyrical about statistics of an ageing population, likewise too the numbers of people living into old age and now ‘old, old age’ or the ‘oldest old’ (as the original term does not factor in that many people are now living beyond what was originally perceived as old age). However, my nursing practice has taken me into the field of dementia for over 35 years, and latterly into researching issues of palliative and end of life care for families affected by dementia.  Gloomy you might say but I have met some wonderful people along the way; heard some joyous stories (and some very sad stories) but it is these stories of people’s lives that are incredibly rewarding to me.

From the instant we are born we are all ageing and will all die at some point – this is inevitable and something all human beings have in common. However, as we delve deeper into the similarities and differences of human circumstance, the amazing variation of individuals and their circle of families, networks, interests, as well as cultures and ethnicities, become apparent.

I met two amazing women last week who are ageing without children (their description, not mine) who campaign and support individuals that are ageing (including those that have dementia) who do not have offspring or the support of children. AWOC York is an inclusive group and welcomes all those older individuals who do not have the support of nearby offspring. For example, their children may be disabled or have died, or moved away, or they may be estranged from them, and also those who chose not to have children or don’t want to be a burden on their children.

Sue and Ann told me the startling statistic that one in five people over the age of 65 are registered as childless.  However, as an Admiral Nurse I often see families affected by dementia accessing the lion’s share of support with families expected to ‘fill the gaps’ that are not provided by health and social care.  So where does that leave the older person with no children to rely on? Ageing Without Children (AWOC) founded by Kirsty Woodard has Sue and Ann to thank for their York branch. This group is just one of the couple’s activities: Sue established the York 50+ Festival that, on an annual basis, celebrates old age and gathers over 100 events on many related and pertinent issues, “No Kidding” by their Real People Theatre on the theme of ageing without children being just one of many.  Their women’s theatre company has also toured with “Dementia & Me” for the past 6 years – it acts as a springboard for audience discussion and the sharing of experiences. I was blown away by their tireless efforts and the wide range of activities which bring attention to ageing and dementia. Why not take a look at their websites and perhaps even attend one of their many events?

Ageing Without Children: https://awoc.org/

The Real People Theatre Company: https://www.realpeopletheatre.co.uk

York 50+ Festival: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/york-50-festival-dozens-of-events-all-around-york-over-a-two-week-period-tickets-34768505536

Dr Karen Harrison Dening / Zena Aldridge July 2018



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