Study: Remaining childless does not lead to loneliness in old age


April 20, 2003
Blog Entry, Brain & Behavior

The common belief that remaining childless leads to loneliness or depression in the elderly is contradicted by a new University of Florida study, which instead found similar levels of well-being among parents and people without children in their later years. At the same time, having children is no guarantee of happiness later in life, said Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, a UF sociology professor who conducted the study.From the University of Florida:UF STUDY: REMAINING CHILDLESS DOES NOT LEAD TO LONELINESS IN OLD AGE

April 17, 2003
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The common belief that remaining childless leads to loneliness or depression in the elderly is contradicted by a new University of Florida study, which instead found similar levels of well-being among parents and people without children in their later years.

At the same time, having children is no guarantee of happiness later in life, said Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, a UF sociology professor who conducted the study.

“For years we have heard warnings that if you don’t have children, you will regret it later,” she said. “But beliefs about childlessness leading to a lonely old age are simply not supported by our study.”

The findings provide evidence that elderly people who never had children are not necessarily more psychologically vulnerable in older age than those with families, said Koropeckyj-Cox, who also is affiliated with UF’s Institute on Aging.

One reason is that some people without children are able to maintain social ties throughout their lives that may substitute for what children would have given them, Koropeckyj-Cox said. They may do this with friends, work relationships or the younger generation, she said.

The survey included more than 3,800 men and women between the ages of 50 and 84 from across the country who were asked how often in the last week they’d felt lonely. The responses of parents were not statistically different than those without children, she said.

The results, published in the November issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family, were based on data from the National Survey of Families and Households, an unusually comprehensive survey about relationships and family life collected in 1988, Koropeckyj-Cox said. People were interviewed not only about their family lives, but also about their attitudes about childlessness and the quality of parents’ relationships with their children, questions that are not included in most surveys, she said.

Koropeckyj-Cox, who conducted the research from 1998-2001, found being a parent did not necessarily lead to well-being in middle and old age. What mattered instead was how parents got along with their adult children, she said.

“For both men and women, the benefits of having children in terms of loneliness and depression came if they had good relationships with their children,” she said. “If they didn’t have a strong relationship, they were more likely to report greater problems.”

In recent decades, sweeping social changes have made people more open to a variety of life patterns, removing some of the stigma once attached to remaining childless, Koropeckyj-Cox believes. “In the 1950s, there was much more pressure to have children, whether it involved pitying people who didn’t have them or criticizing people who chose to remain childless,” she said.

But some attitudes about childlessness linger, and they may be particularly strong among women, she found. Childless women who believed it was better to have a child were much more likely to report being lonely and depressed than their female counterparts who said it didn’t make a difference, she said.

When asked the same question – whether it was better to have a child – childless men showed no difference in rates of loneliness and depression, no matter their answer.

Child-bearing and childlessness are far more pressing issues in the lives of women than men, said Koropeckyj-Cox, who also analyzed as part of her research a series of taped interviews with older men and women in the Philadelphia area discussing at length how having children or remaining childless affected their lives.

“Childbearing is much more connected to the way women think of themselves and the way women are seen socially by others,” she said. “As a result, many childless women report feeling in a position of having to explain their childless status.”

Other studies have pointed to marital status as a major predictor of well-being for older men, so it is possible that for them, having a wife or partner is more important than having children, she said.

“Koropeckyj-Cox’s findings are important for a number of reasons,” said Mark D. Hayward, director of the Social Science Research Institute and a sociology and demography professor at Pennsylvania State University. “The growing number of persons who will be entering old age without offspring does not necessarily signal a decline in the psychological well-being of the population. Quality family relationships, rather than simply having a child, are important for lessening elderly persons’ vulnerability to loneliness.”

The Philadelphia interviews Koropeckyj-Cox studied reflected a broad range of answers about the factors leading people to remain childless and the effects on their lives. Among them were those who never cared for the idea of becoming parents, and those who intended to when they were young but were unsuccessful, she said.

“Some people throughout their lives held onto the idea they were disadvantaged,” she said. “They continued to feel left out of something that was important to them. But other infertile men and women adjusted to their childless status and voiced no regret.”

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6 Responses to Study: Remaining childless does not lead to loneliness in old age

  1. JoMa January 7, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    Even if their may be a greater chance of being alone in old age, having kids is certainly not a guarantee of security. Childed people still end up alone and destitute in nursing homes. Childless people can be better off. They didn’t have to spend enormous amount of money it takes to raise kids, so they have more resources to live comfortably. Also, most childless people still have family and friends, maybe even more friends. If I still end up alone in my old age, it might just be inevitable, but at least I have fond memories to look back upon and lived the life that I chose.

  2. Liberty October 29, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    In my experience, the loneliest, saddest people are those who are either divorced and have children but do not have significant relationships with their children.

    Many parents complain that their children either do not visit enough or that they never leave the home and become independent, productive adults.

    It seems to me that the younger generation seems to be more dependent on the older generation for support than the other way around.

    The younger generation is in debt (mostly student loans) and are either unemployed or underemployed. They either drop out of college (more than 50 percent do so) or graduate and move back in with their parents because they can’t find jobs that can support them.

    Many adult children move back with their parents after a divorce. Others need their parents to babysit their children during the day while they go to work. Then there are those grandparents who actually raise their own grandchildren because the parents are too dysfunctional to raise them.

    So if you think that children will be around to take care of their parents when these parents become elderly and frail, think again. Besides, what decent parent would want their children to change their diapers for them and care for them when they become elderly and sick?

    I would hope that the children would have better things to do than visit their parents in the nursing homes. In many cases, the social workers will probably make better decisions than the children. A lot of children fight over who gets control over their parents’ assets and may not have the best interests of their parents in mind.

    Furthermore, it’s selfish to bring a life into this world just because you want someone to visit you in the home one day. Save your money, invest in long-term care insurance, make friends when you are younger and sustain those relationships over the years and you will probably be better off in your golden years.

    Marriage and raising children are not what they used to be. Divorce takes its toll on everyone emotionally, financially, mentally and physically. It takes many years and lots of money to raise a child nowadays – a child will need their parent(s) well into their 20s nowadays. People who divorce and have children are more likely to slip into poverty and single parents slip into poverty even more frequently.

    If you want children, make sure you have the money, health, mental status, emotional well-being and an extensive support network to raise them. Otherwise, your children will be angry at you when you can’t help them. They will tell you, “I didn’t ask to be born.” And there is nothing you can say to that because you know they are right.

  3. Katrine September 15, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

    I think this study is just spouting out what is considered “politically correct” to say nowadays. Our society increasingly says having children is not important, marriage is not important, and its more hip to focus on career.

    I work in nursing homes and the loneliest people are those who never had children, and consequently, no grandchildren either. Their spouse has usually passed on years earlier. There are no pictures on the walls of their room, just bare walls. Its so depressing just to walk into their room. Nobody visits them. They may be too senile, or not feel well enough to socialize and make new friends. Since there is no family to make health decisions for them, those decisions are often made by social workers.

  4. kyle marx May 12, 2011 at 11:33 pm #

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  5. leslie baxster May 1, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    this is a great article…. I was looking forward about it……

  6. anonymous December 6, 2010 at 2:56 am #

    I fell these statements smoothen the pain at heart, but actually who will take care when u are old, Friends,relatives etc all will be present when u are young, have money ,but when u really need at old who?we have heard of old age homes in india giving poison to the old people ,whom people do not visit reguraly to take away their valuables or not able to bear there torture. ok no issue at old age what a person requires is heart to share, a companion to be beside u.& trustable people.Todays technolgy is so advance u cannot go an ATM nor do on-line banking,nor go & complain about ur illtreatment to others,nor u will not get what u like to eat ,due to justifyable medical reasons. But from whom can u expect a moderate love & whom will do this ,i feel it is only the children ,becuse they are attached through blood.Though they may scold absue but still they have love at one corner.

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