About six years ago, I began to notice an interesting thing: many of my friends were spending a lot of time tending to their aging parents. Those that lived close by were helping with driving, relocation, managing medications, going to doctor appointments, etc. Those whose parent(s) lived further away did a lot of those tasks long distance – by proxy or by spending a lot of time on airplanes. None of my friends had thought about this ahead of time and neither had their parents. It just happened. All of a sudden there was a fall or a doctor’s pronouncement that Mom shouldn’t drive anymore. Or there was a change in Dad’s behavior that became worrisome.
These friends of mine, these adult children – no matter their history of friendship or off-again, on-again estrangement – were called in to help. They felt compelled to do that and they did it. After all…who else was there?
After a 2010 phone call in which my friend Carol told me, in great detail, about her most recent emergency trip to care for her 92-year old father-in-law – a trip that lasted over a month, I hung up the phone and paused for a minute …a thought popped into my mind and it made me (literally) gasp: My husband and I don’t have children…who will do this for us??
After I recovered from that blinding realization, I began to reflect on the makeup of the people in our immediate circle of friends and colleagues – highly educated baby boomer couples and singles, who had (or still have) serious and time-consuming careers – and concluded that a fairly sizable number of them are in the same boat. We are ‘solo agers,’ people who are in their 7th decade or beyond with no living children.
I also began researching the statistics on the prevalence of this phenomenon – was it just my little pocket of Silicon Valley friends and colleagues or had there been a significant change in the rate of childlessness with our generation? Evidence pointed to the latter. My inquiries quickly led me to a government website that reported childlessness among baby boomer women at 19.4%. Wow! I did a comparison. It was almost double the percentage of childlessness in all previous generations. Why? No big mystery there: 1) introduction of the birth control pill, and 2) major advances in women’s rights and level of education. No longer were women dependent on men for their survival and they had total power over their ability and willingness to conceive.
That autonomy and freedom worked out well for us in our 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s. Now we are rapidly approaching our final decades, and although we would all love to be among the 80-something and 90-something dynamos we read about – those who are still playing golf or tennis or even running marathons – the reality for most of us is that eventually we will need some help. We will need someone to do things for us, at least part of the time.
How Many Solo Agers Are There?
Are there a lot of us out there? You bet! There are 78 million baby boomers. If 19.4% do not have children (and by the way, that’s the percent of women who don’t have children; for reasons I don’t quite understand, it’s even higher for men) that adds up to over 15 million of us that are childless.
At that point, I coined the term “solo ager” for anyone, married or single, who is childless. Why apply that to married couples? Because one will die and the remaining spouse will be left alone. None of us have a crystal ball, so we can’t predict which one will go first, but it makes more sense to me for both spouses to prepare as though he or she would be alone one day in the future.