Monday, May 3, 2010

Effects of childlessness on the elderly well-being

Statistics and Trends

A substantial and increasing proportion of American adults have no children by choice or because of infertility problems.  In 2006 20.4 percent of women age 40-44 were childless, compared to 17.9 percent in 2002 and 10.2 percent in 1976.  As these women age, the percent who are childless will rise further because some will outlive all their children.  For at least the next few decades, rising childlessness will be one factor that helps increase the ratio of elders to working age adults.  As this ratio rises, either the working age population will need to pay a larger portion of their income to support Social Security and health care for the elderly, or funding for those purposes will need to be reduced.  Thus, childlessness is one contributor to the long-term financial pressures on Social Security, public health care programs, and the health care system.  These macro impacts of falling fertility have received and continue to receive broad attention from researchers and policy makers. 

Childlessness influence on the elderly health

In addition to its contribution to the macro impacts, childlessness – whether voluntary or not – may have important effects at the individual level.  There are several mechanisms through which being childless may affect an elder’s health status, other things equal.  Consider possible positives.  Suppose childless elders enjoyed higher personal consumption, including health care, when younger because a significant portion of their income was not devoted to supporting children. Better health care and higher consumption in general, when younger, may help childless adults enter their older years in better health. If childless elders have more assets and current income, they can afford better health care and health insurance and can more easily pay for household and other services that parents may receive from their children.  

Now consider possible negatives. If elderly parents receive assistance from their children that positively affects a variety of health outcomes, childless elders will tend to have relatively poorer health status.  For example, children’s assistance with household tasks may prevent falls that lead to broken bones and hospitalization, may delay the time until nursing home care is necessary, or may prevent the need for nursing care entirely. Similarly, children may monitor their parents’ health conditions and identify problems while they are still minor and treated more easily and less costly.  If a parent requires hospitalization or other intensive care, children may monitor the quality of care and advocate on their parent’s behalf to hospital staff, nursing home staff, other health professionals, and health insurance providers. Last, childbirth and nursing can have both positive and negative effects on women’s health.

Childlessness influence on the elderly happiness

Considering the closeness and mutually supportive relationships that many adult children and elderly parents enjoy, it is reasonable to expect that elderly individuals who are parents would be happier than those who do not have children. However, the research on this issue has consistently demonstrated that individuals who are childless are as happy and well-adjusted as are parents, even in the later years. Further, people who are sixty-five or older and do not have children are more likely to report advantages than disadvantages of childlessness. Individuals who have remained childless have been found to develop social networks that compensate for the absence of support from adult children. However, the emphasis on such compensatory mechanisms varies by gender. For example, childless women are more likely than their male counterparts to develop close friendship networks and become involved with community and religious organizations. Not surprisingly, older individuals who are the most likely to be disadvantaged by their childlessness are widowed men who had been dependent primarily on their wives for instrumental and emotional support.

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"Economists have modeled the impact of many variables on people's overall happiness and have consistently found that children have only a small impact. A small negative impact," reports Harvard psychologist and happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert. In addition, the more children a person has the less happy they are. According to Gilbert, researchers have found that people derive more satisfaction from eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television than taking care of their kids. "Indeed, looking after the kids appears to be only slightly more pleasant than doing housework," asserts Gilbert in his bestselling, Stumbling on Happiness (2006).

Of course, that's not what most parents say when asked. For instance, in a 2007 Pew Research Center survey people insisted that their relationships with their little darlings are of the greatest importance to their personal happiness and fulfillment. However, the same survey also found "by a margin of nearly three-to-one, Americans say that the main purpose of marriage is the 'mutual happiness and fulfillment' of adults rather than the 'bearing and raising of children.'"

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The one area in which there are substantial differences between the experiences of parents and the childless in the later years is living arrangements. Elderly people who are childless are about 50 percent more likely to live in some form of residential care at some point than are parents. One might expect that this would mean that childless men would be the most likely to live in residential care at some point in their later years; however, the fact that women are more likely to be childless, combined with their longer life expectancy, means that childless women are more likely than childless men to live in residential care facilities at some point.

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