Who Will Take Care Of Me If I Don't Have Kids?

by Kristina Marusic
Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle

I’m 33 and childless, and I’m pretty sure I want to remain that way forever. Most of the time, I feel secure about my decision to never have children. But it does raise some questions. For one, I wonder who will take care of me when I’m an old woman — a question people seem to bring up anytime I reveal my plans to skip motherhood.

In our society, we’re really only given one narrative about how to be an old person, and it’s one I am intimately familiar with. My grandmother, 86, and grandfather, 91, live in the same city as two of their kids and most of their 11 grandchildren — including me. We all stop by regularly to help them out with things that have become difficult, like changing high-up light bulbs or carrying heavy groceries, and frequently enjoy big family gatherings. Watching all the joy they get from being surrounded by such a large, loving family looks really wonderful, and I fear that without children or grandchildren of my own, such an idyllic scenario will be out of my reach when I’m old. There won’t be anyone who is genetically obligated to help me get things from the attic, or make difficult health care decisions on my behalf.

I do find comfort in knowing I’m not the only one with major question marks in her future. While up until a few decades ago, most women my age were already or soon-to-become mothers, today, more American women aren’t having children than ever before. In fact, according to a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau survey, almost half of women between the ages of 15 and 44 aren’t mothers — the highest percentage since someone started tracking it.

The reasons women aren’t having children are myriad, and are both structural (like our country’s nonexistent maternity leave policies) and personal (like my massive student loan debt). For me, and many others, having kids just isn’t something I’ve ever really felt drawn to. But just as the decision to have or not have children is one everyone should make for themselves, so is deciding how to spend our so-called “golden years.” And as women who have chosen kid-less lives can attest, there are more options than our grandmothers could have imagined.

Sociologist Laura S. Scott is the author of the book Two Is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice and creator of the documentary The Childless by Choice Project. She spent five years traveling the United States, interviewing heterosexual couples in committed, long-term relationships about their choice, since they face the greatest amount of societal pressure to have babies — including what they thought about the question of who’d care for them when they got old.

“People who report the highest levels of happiness and well-being are [often] those who’ve chosen not to have children."

Some people she spoke with had prepared responses to the question of who will take care of them when they get old, and “some just thought it was stupid,” she says. Many of them pointed out that there’s never a guarantee that children will be willing or able to take care of someone when they’re old — and even if they are, many parents would prefer not to burden their kids. She also notes that while it’s more common in other countries for elderly grandparents to rely on their kids for help with the difficulties of aging, that’s no longer really the case in the United States: Only 14 percent of Americans provide their aging parents with personal care, such as bathing and dressing.

“If you look at end of life studies,” Scott tells Bustle, “people who report the highest levels of happiness and well-being are [often] those who’ve chosen not to have children. This is unexpected, but researchers have found that it’s because they rely instead on what are referred to as ‘built families of affinity,’ or what I like to call ‘tribes,’ of people not related to each other, and people with the strongest social networks generally report the highest levels of well-being.”

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Conversely, the people who often struggle in old age are “the ones who expect their kids to take care of them or come visit them, but then it doesn’t happen and they’re deeply disappointed,” she says. “If you’ve never had kids, you don’t have expectations like that to begin with, so you make other plans.”

Scott herself is childfree (a term that’s used to differentiate between those those who’ve chosen to remain “free” of children versus those who do want children, but are “childless” by circumstance). She initially embarked on her research project when she turned 42 and found herself surrounded by parents asking why she’d chosen not to have kids.

An informal poll conducted among members of Scott’s Childless By Choice Facebook group found that more than half of the respondents were prepared to fund their own end-of-life care. A handful said they were investing in long-term health insurance, while a number of others said they’d seriously consider planned euthanasia if they could no longer take care of themselves. One couple said they’d converted to Catholicism so that when one of them died, the other would have the option of joining an order and becoming a nun or a monk.

Scott also adds that people who remain childfree are often good planners who put thought into these questions at an early age. (“If they weren’t incredibly good planners,” she jokes, “they’d probably have wound up with kids at some point.”) Scott herself is still only 56, but she recently toured an assisted-living facility with her close-knit group of mostly childfree female friends so they could consider putting down a deposit now in anticipation of spending their final years there together.

“I didn’t know if I wanted to raise a child while in a relationship that society felt — at that point — very negative towards.”

Carolyn Roney, a childfree, 65-year-old lesbian who lives in a suburb of Dallas, is also currently in the process of planning how she’ll spend her final years.

Roney emphasizes that not having children was her choice and that she doesn’t have any regrets, but she says it wasn’t a decision she arrived at easily. “As I was growing up in my generation, gay and lesbian couples weren’t necessarily having children,” says Roney, who was formerly a teacher. “Part of that was very surreal for me, because I loved children so much.” Roney says her parents have always been accepting of her, and she remains very close with her siblings and their children. But, she adds, “I didn’t know if I wanted to raise a child while in a relationship that society felt — at that point — very negative towards.”

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Before her mother died in 2014, Roney became her primary caretaker. The role fell to her rather than her siblings because she was the sister who didn’t have children — Scott says this is common — but she says she was happy to take it on. Today, Roney is the decision-maker when it comes to the care of her 97-year-old father, who is still in good health and very much in his right mind (he hit her up on Facetime while we were chatting) and lives in an assisted-living facility.

Caring for her parents and working with the elderly got Roney thinking about who would take care of her when she got old. Many intentionally childfree people form close relationships with young people in their lives (nieces and nephews, students, godchildren, mentees, friends’ kids), who may offer to help care for them as they age, according to Scott. That’s true for Roney, but while her doting nieces and nephews have promised they’d care for her if she needed it, she says she’d prefer not to burden them with the responsibility — especially since they now have their own children.

This all inspired Roney to become involved with the LGBT Coalition For Aging in Dallas, where she is now a board member. Since many LGBT people her age never felt that having children was an option, making plans to support one another as they grow older is a frequent topic of conversation.

“I’ve always had friends in the LGBT community that’ve said, ‘Let’s do this together,’ but no one was acting on it yet,” Roney, who is currently single, tells Bustle. “I recently started talking to my inner circle of friends to seriously consider what that’s really going to look like.”

“I’ve talked with plenty of people who have ideas about Golden Girls-ing it and going in on a house together with other women."

One of those friends owns a piece of property and is currently consulting with a lawyer about creating an equitable plan that would allow her to build a circle of tiny houses with a central shared common space for the friend group to move into. That way they can support each other, keep each other company, and share caretaking costs down the road.

“I have other friends that have all moved into an assisted-living facility together,” she told me, “So they’re building their own community within that community.”

Moving into one big house together is another option. “I’ve talked with plenty of people who have ideas about Golden Girls-ing it and going in on a house together with other women,” says sociologist Amy Blackstone, who studies and blogs about the stigma associated with women who choose to be childfree. “Women do tend to live longer than men, so I’m sort of anticipating that I’ll be around a bit longer than my husband. … The Golden Girls option is one I’ve discussed with my friends.”

Blackstone says that finding like-minded friends is critical when it comes to overcoming social pressure to have kids.

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“It’s important to find people who will support your choice,” Blackstone says. “There are meetup groups all over the world, and I’ve interviewed many women for whom that’s made a significant difference — finding other childless women to connect with.”

Blackstone and Scott both said it’s not uncommon for women’s relationships with their friends to change and gain distance if their peers do decide to have kids — but it’s also common for those friendships to become closer again once the children grow up.

Roney experienced this with a couple she was close with when they adopted a daughter. “I’ll never forget the conversation we had where I was crying and I said, ‘You know we’re going in different directions now and our friendship is going to change.’” Though they became less close, the three still stayed in touch through the years. The couple’s daughter is now in college, and they’ve recently begun picking up their friendship where they left off 18 years ago. It’s the type of friendship that can become part of the “built families of affinity” the childfree rely on for support in their older years.

Beyond the emotional implications of not having kids, childfree adults contemplating what their older years will look like also have to weigh financial considerations. Both sociologists indicate that many of the childfree people they’ve interviewed have plans to use the money they’d otherwise have spent raising kids to care for themselves in old age. “There’s an estimate floating around that it costs around $250,000 to raise a child to age 18, which doesn’t count college,” says Blackstone. “My husband and I think of the nest egg we’re building to sustain us after we stop working as money we’d otherwise be investing in children.”

“If you decide not to have children, but you are able to give of yourself, you should extend yourself to others as much as you can.”

Money hasn’t been an issue for Marie Downs-Deasy, a twice-widowed 95-year-old who lives in an upscale retirement village in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Downs-Deasy says she once thought she might have liked to have children, but she didn’t find the right person to marry until she was 42, and at that point it was no longer an option.

“There’s nothing wrong about not getting married. No one should feel pressured to have kids,” Downs-Deasy tells Bustle. She adds that although she may have once felt disappointment about never having children of her own, she’s had “a very interesting life” that’s kept her “too busy to ever feel any regret.”

Downs-Deasy’s first husband, a successful financial executive, died when she was in her early 60s, leaving her most of his fortune. She married her second husband, a long-time friend who was also widowed, 11 years after her first husband had died. When he passed away, too, eight years later, she received another large inheritance. Downs-Deasy says her daily life now is “very, very busy,” describing the activities director at her retirement village as “truly wonderful,” and saying she looks forward to weekly activities like exercise classes, shopping outings, and card games. She also enjoys frequent visits from her sister’s five children, whom she basically helped raise, and their kids, all of whom live in the area and spend time together as often as possible.

“At one point, I told one of my nursing assistants who took care of me, ‘I have no family,’ and she replied, ‘We are your family.’”

“If you decide not to have children, but you are able to give of yourself, you should extend yourself to others as much as you can,” Downs-Deasy advises me. “Whatever you do for other people in life, you’ll get back two-fold.”

While some childfree people, like Downs-Deasy, are able to save and wisely invest the money they’re not spending on raising kids to plan for a little luxury in their old age, the reality is that the vast majority of Americans have not saved enough for retirement — and this includes childfree people, who may not have the same social safety nets as those with kids. We’ve begun to see other stories about how “elder orphans” are connecting with one another to try and make a plan for their care — both financial and emotional — late in the game.

“This is something that I never thought seriously about until this year,” Debbie Miller, a 65-year-old childfree resident of Brooklyn tells me. Last year, Miller took a bad fall down the stairs of her second story walk-up and had to have surgery on her left leg. Afterward, she spent three months in a nursing home for wound care and physical therapy rehab. During that time she lost her part-time job, her unemployment benefits, and her apartment. “I was essentially on Medicaid and homeless,” she says.

“At one point, I told one of my nursing assistants who took care of me, ‘I have no family,’ and she replied, ‘We are your family,’” Miller shares. “That was both comforting and terrifying. Up until that time, I think I had been in denial of my impending old age.”

“We have to stop falling for the stereotype that the childfree are cold-hearted or bad at relationships."

Miller got to work making spreadsheets detailing how she’d get on Social Security and regain her independence. Two good friends helped her find, rent, and move into a new apartment after she left the nursing home. They both checked in on her regularly, and one of them lent her money so she could get back on her feet. She says she feels lucky to have them but still worries about what’s going to happen as she ages. She works as a freelance writer now but sometimes struggles to pay the rent, and she worries about how she’ll pay for health care and housing if she again stops being able to work.

Despite those concerns, Miller says she doesn’t regret not having kids — a decision she credits with giving her the ability to travel, choose a career she was genuinely passionate about, and experience less stress than parents. And while Roney has had moments where she has contemplated adopting, and says she sometimes experiences heartache when looking at pictures of her friends’ kids and grandkids on social media, Blackstone’s research suggests that FOMO is uncommon among the intentionally childfree.

“In fact,” she says, “it’s often the opposite — people see others raising kids or babysitting grandkids on social media or in person and think, ‘Thank God that’s not me.’”

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In addition to being asked who will take care of them, the childfree are often faced with questions about about their basic abilities to love and nurture others — which Blackstone says are unwarranted. “We have to stop falling for the stereotype that the childfree are cold-hearted or bad at relationships,” Blackstone says. “In fact, studies have shown that childfree people often have larger and more diverse social networks than parents, which makes sense because they’re able to put in so much more time, which gives them the ability to become more deeply embedded in their communities than parents might be.”

After her accident, Miller joined a group called Good Neighbors of Park Slope, which is for people over the age of 50 who want to "age in place" by staying in their own homes for as long as possible. She says most of the members were born and raised in the neighborhood, and they spend a lot of time talking about the issue of who will care for them — including many members who have kids who either live far away or are too busy with their own children to help out. Some members have discussed becoming roommates so they’re not alone, or sharing the cost of an in-home caretaker — two options Miller says she’s beginning to consider.

“This organization has been a Godsend to me,” Miller says. “I don't know exactly what will happen, but I do know I now have a peer group.”

Blackstone emphasizes that the question of what various aspects of our lives — financial, social, and emotional — will look like when we’re old is one we should all start considering while we’re still young. “Ultimately,” she says, “we should all have an answer to these questions — whether or not we have kids.”

Instead of worrying about who will take care of me when I’m old, I’m now intent on investing in the things that will ensure my old age is something worth looking forward to. That not only means putting all the money I’m not spending on diapers and daycare into my retirement fund, but also actively nurturing the friendships and community connections I’ve already built, so I can spend old age in the company of people I want to be around... not because of anyone's sense of obligation but because we truly enjoy each other's company.

As Scott says, “The childfree have more opportunities than parents to become deeply connected to what I call surrogate families — pets, nieces, nephews, the kids of their close friends, younger people they’ve mentored professionally or personally through the years."

Hopefully one of those people will be able to change a lightbulb for me when I am too old to do it myself.