Life Without Baby

Filling the silence in the motherhood discussion

It Got Me Thinking…About the Caretaking Question March 27, 2012

By Kathleen Guthrie Woods

I usually include in my byline for this column that I am “mostly at peace with being childfree.” I now can tolerate the occasional baby shower, I genuinely celebrate news of friends’ pregnancies, and I relish my unscheduled weekends. I am growing accustomed to a childfree life, but one nagging issue still troubles me.

In recent months, complications from arthritis, pain, and plain ol’ old age have crept up on my 14-year-old chocolate lab, Scout. It’s fallen to me to provide for her new needs, like carrying her home from walks when her legs can go no further, supplementing her diet with soft treats like ground turkey and steamed broccoli, and lugging her up and down our front stairs for pee breaks throughout the day.

I’m not complaining. I feel privileged to be Scout’s human, and I want her final days to be as comfortable as possible and full of love. I cherish this precious time with her. But it’s got me thinking….

In caring for my sweet girl, I am confronting my greatest fear, the one big bad ugly fear I have about being childfree: Who will take care of me? When my mind or body gives in to the inevitable aging process, who will step up to manage my finances or coordinate medical care? Who will assist me up stairs or change the batteries in the smoke detector or make sure there’s food in the fridge? I worry there will be no one to keep me company in the lonely hours of my golden years, and to hold my hand, offering comfort and prayers, when it’s my time to pass from this life to the next. Will I end up paying someone to perform all these tasks perfunctorily?

Both my grandmothers lived into their 90s. When they needed help in their final years, there were children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren at their sides. But I am childfree. I have no caretaker in the wings. I am saddened by this thought and, frankly, I am scared.

Kathleen Guthrie Woods is a Northern California–based freelance writer. She’s mostly at peace with being childfree.


17 Responses to “It Got Me Thinking…About the Caretaking Question”

  1. Kate B Says:

    I am scared about this too. I”ll bet most childless couples are. It’s no comfort, but I have learned that having children does not mean you shouldn’t be scared about this as well.

    • Maria Says:

      This is my first post and i want to thank you for creating this blog and writing your book. Your story sounded so much like mine — it was as if you wrote my own story, thoughts and feelings. Anyway — to respond to your question. Having children is no guarantee that they will take care of you when you are older. I have a mother that is bipolar and I have had to limit my contact with her just to survive. I will contribute financially to her care when the time comes, but I cannot physically interact with her without losing my self-esteem and sanity. I recognize that if we could have children, there is no guarantee they would be capable of compassion, love, understanding or financially able to help us when we were old. Having said that, my sisters (who are very similar to my mother) went on to have their own children. I have watched them hurt their children and their self-esteem their entire lives and have tried to be the person in their childrens’ lives that they know unconditionally loves them. I once said to my niece that I was afraid I would end up in a nursing home all alone because I had no children and she told me, “oh no, I would never let that happen, you will come live with me.” After that, she started sending me mother’s day cards with a note that I was her second mom. My point is, don’t underestimate the love you receive from the children within your family that are not your own. I had a much greater impact on them than I realized, and I’m sure you do too.

      • IrisD Says:

        My niece and nephew tell me the same thing. Who knows what will happen in the future, and I certainly hope never to be a burden on anyone, just hoping that there will be people there who love and care for me enough to check in.

  2. People call the childfree selfish, but having kids just so you’ve got someone to look after you in your old age is actually selfish.

    What guarantee have you got that your kids will look after you then anyway? None.

  3. monka Says:

    Absolutely! This is my nagging fear as well. I hope that the children that surround us now will provide some form of advocacy when we are old but I can’t really expect that of them. The second thought after I ask myself “who will take care of me when I’m old” is “well, die young then”. Now I’m not suggesting truly reckless behaviour but if I like salt on my popcorn, I’m going to have salt on my popcorn.

  4. mina Says:

    I’m more scared about what’s gonna happen with my Dad. He’s 78 and doing fine so far, but it’s clear that he won’t get any younger and his health will get worse eventually. At the moment he’s getting by ok on his own. My parents got divorced 20 years ago. They keep in touch but my mum has a new partner while he lives alone. I am scared of missing the moment when he’s no longer able to look after himself and nobody will realize.
    Yes i’ll be there to help “Manage finances and coordinate medical care” when the time comes. I am there now to talk to him on the phone and meet up somtimes. Which makes me sad and feeling guilty everytime i speak to him on the phone – it’s clear that he’s lonely. But i live 2 hours away and frankly, at the moment, i DON’T feel like organizing my life revolving around dad. Would you?
    So – no: I’m not there to change a lightbulb, or make his lonelyness go away, because he would want to have someone around 24h a day and I don’t feel like living together with him. I love my dad but there are reasons why my mum got a divorce and why i went to live in another town.
    There are reasons why he doesn’t have many friends. There are reasons why it’s not so easy to know when he would need help – for example, every time some minor medical problem arose in the past, he told us AFTERWARDs and not when he needed the help. He keeps telling me to phone more recently but refuses to call me first. etc. So: Some of the reasons for his lonelyness are his own responsibility.

    No i don’t think a child is a caretaker “in the wings”.
    It’s our own responsibility to organize a network, be it of relatives, siblings, friends, neighbours and/or paid help, to support us.
    I can understand your fear since being single i live that sometimes even now. What if i have an accident in my house? I live alone, nobody will be there to help me/call for help!! but it’s actually a fear we can do something about, we can get organized before we are in an emergency situation.

  5. IrisD Says:

    This is my worry, too, mostly. Hopefully my niece and nephew, who I am very close to now, will be my healthcare advocates when I am no longer in good shape. (I have been their for my childless aunts.) This does not mean that I would move in with them, just that they will be there to make decisions and help when I need it. But who knows. These days few people live their entire lives in the same village with all their relatives. Kids get up and go, move cities, states, or even continents away from their parents, or they are busy working and taking care of their own kids and grandkids, so really far less reliable as caregivers for parents than they used to be. What worries me at the moment are my finances. I have student loans because I went back to school late in life, which mean I quit my job and have not found a full time job yet. If I were more fit financially I think I would worry less. It seems that among the elderly, it is finances that are the bigger worry. I hope to be proactive with my health (which means I better get on it, since I’m now 43 and overweight) and pray that I do not get a longterm debilitating illness. If I’m lucky enough to live to a ripe old age, hopefully that will mean that I also worked to a ripe old age and have some savings to afford to live in an assisted living community. I have 0 retirement plans, and hope to work for as long as I can.

  6. Lois Says:

    I have thought about this too, and it has been a fear as well. My husband is older and most likely will go first, and I’ll be alone.
    Maybe now we build relationships so we do have people around us in our old age. Friends, nieces, nephews…

  7. Kellie Says:

    I sometimes think about this….but as my mom keeps telling me – Having children now does not guarantee that they will be around to take care of you later.

    I know many older folks that have children and as the parents age, I don’t see the kids or grand kids stepping up to help out…they are too busy in their own lives. I find this to be very sad.

  8. Klara Says:

    It is cristally clear to me already now that there will be nobody to take care of me. And I do not expect help from anybody.
    Looking from the bright side – I will be no burden to anybody.
    And – I will definetely not dissapointed at my golden age – I agree that having kids is no guarantee that there would actually be someone to help.

    Me and my DH already have a plan for our later years (75+).
    We are going to build a small cosy house in few years. Enjoy it for the few decades. And then, when we will feel we are not able to live alone any more, we will move to one of the assisted homes for senior citizens . First we would sell the house, to get some additional money.

    The only help I actually hope to get is from my nieces (luckily they are almost 40 years younger as me) is to help me organizing our finances (if necessary).

    So – that’s how organized I am! 10 years ago I also knew exactly in which years my 3 kids would be born. But the life turned out completely different for us.

    Perhaps I just feel safer if I have the feeling that I can sort everything out.

    You are a great dog owner! I am sure Scout is happy to have you as his human!
    (my beloved dog is now 5 years old)

  9. Mali Says:

    This is a really common fear amongst us. I’ve written about it here.

    I also read a study (referenced in my blogpost linked above) a few years ago, that reassured me that it won’t be as lonely as we think. That as people without children, we won’t rely on them to provide for us in our old age, and so won’t be disappointed that they aren’t there, and will have other support networks.

  10. I can’t say I’m afraid of this, but I do think about it. As I work freelance I know I won’t have a huge retirement plan to fall back on, and I wouldn’t want to end up wasting away in a home either. I think that as I get older I will be even more proactive about cultivating relationships with friends who can take care of one another. I don’t have a firm plan in place, but I am definitely starting to think seriously about how the later years of my life might unfold.

    Thanks for provoking the discussion, Kathleen.

  11. Angela Says:

    As a geriatric nurse practitioner, I have met many elderly patients who have had very little support from their family, living far away, or just being too busy. Having a child does not guarantee that they will care for you. I have met other patients who have been blessed with caring friends that were as close to “family” as blood relatives. Having an Advanced Directive will help others to know what you want when you cannot speak for yourself.

  12. loribeth Says:

    I will admit this subject gives me pause as well. I know, as many of you have already pointed out, that there are many, many lonely old people living without regular support from their children — but your odds are certainly better when you have kids in the first place, aren’t they?

    I like to think our two nephews (dh’s brother’s sons) will look in on us from time to time in our twilight years, but I don’t expect them to be regular caregivers. The one good (?) thing about not having children is both dh & I have been working uninterrupted at pretty good jobs since we were in our mid-20s & will have accumulated fairly decent pensions & savings by the time we’re ready to retire (hopefully early, in a few years). Hopefully it will be enough to buy us the assistance we will eventually need.

  13. It’s a valid fear. I’m 60 and already alone. I do have a network of friends, but it’s not easy to call on them. I’m going to have to toughen up and do it when I need help. I know they’re willing.

    As everyone else says, even people with children may not have the care they need or desire. My father is almost 90 and both his kids live far away. My brother visits often, and I get there about twice a year. He’s not the kind of guy who reaches out to other people, so I worry and pray that he’s okay.

    Is there somebody out there worrying and praying about me? I sure hope so.

    We’ll have to take care of each other.

  14. DAK Says:

    This is my greatest fear in life. Literally the one fear I can’t bear to think of. I keep telling my husband that we need to save More. Much more than other people save for ‘retirement’. My aunt, who is my favorite aunt, child free, is 86 and sickly. Her brother who lives with her is also sick, 78 yrs old. They did everything in the world for me as I was growing up. Me and my cousins do everything for them. Including financing. I only wonder if I will get as lucky with my nieces and nephews…..Sadly, I am thinking not..

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