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The Informal Support Provided When Living with Parents, not Alone

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The number of elderly Canadians increased by 19.4% among those 85 and older between 2011 and 2016 (Tang, Galbraith & Truong, 2019), nearly two women for every man. For centenarians, whose ranks grew at a staggering rate of 41.3 per cent, the ratio was five to one. Since people are living longer and women tend to outlive men, females learn to cope with living alone as they grow old. Many people would respond to the fact that seniors have to age alone with a suggestion that they contact their children, family, or relatives for help, but the reality is that nearly 50% of seniors over the age of 65 are living alone, and 15% have never been married and are childless (Milan, 2011). This vulnerable population is estimated to grow to 25% of unmarried and childless seniors by 2030 (Milan, 2011).

At some point in our lives, we will all need help from family and friends, and there are many studies and research on the types and benefits of informal support for aging seniors in general, maybe even some on elderly women. However, there is an alarming lack of data on being a single, childless woman, the support she can access and the experience of aging alone. Growing up, we learn certain cultural norms and expectations with regards to the various stages of a woman’s life, and some of those “rules” date back thousands of years. Girls have been raised to take the role of lifelong caregiver and when they reach marriage-able age, they will marry and start their own family. Being a single woman, nearing her mid-30s, with no (immediate) plans to marry or have children I am interested in finding out what research has discovered about the benefits and challenges of an informal support network for ever-single women.

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Literature Review

The literature reviewed takes a look at how ever-single women have acquired, and now manage, the informal support networks needed for survival in old age. All papers initially identified by the search terms were screened by article title and/or abstract for relevance. The literature search was through Google Scholar, NCBI, and Oxford Academic. The following search terms were used ‘ever-single women’, ‘informal support’, ‘life course perspective’, ‘feminist’, ‘elder orphans’, ‘childless’, ‘aging’, ‘Canada’, ‘single’, ‘alone’. Initially, the search was restricted to articles published since 2000, however, due to a lack of published research, I also considered older articles. For the purpose of this paper, I attempt to look at the experience of informal support networks on ever-single women, those who have never married and are childless. I do also take into consideration that there may be commonalities and shared experiences that ever-single women may share with other married, single-parent, widowed or divorced women.

A Women’s Life

The life stages between a male and female are similar, they learn norms within their family and society as young children, they attend school to get an education. Upon the completion of their schooling, they are expected to find employment, get married and start a family. For thousands of years, marriage was primarily an economic and political contract between two individuals, negotiated and policed by their families, church and community (Johnson & Catalano, 1981). It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a mate’s skills, resources, thrift, and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness.

It was only from the 18th century did labour became divided within the family: men took the on the role of breadwinner and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women; prior to this change, both men and women shared the responsibilities of caregiving and earning. Such a major shift in responsibilities meant that time was needed, it wasn’t until the 1950s before the majority of American families were able to afford to live off a single breadwinner (Utz & Nordmeyer, 2007)

Being a single woman after reaching a certain age may have automatically labeled you an “old maid” (Adams, 1987; Gubrium, 1975; Utz & Nordmeyer, 2007) in the past, even if she might not have wanted to be married. With all these changes to the socioeconomic landscape, society still put expectations on females to fulfill the “responsibilities” of a woman, these old maids now took on the responsibility of caring for their aging parents as they were seen as the ones without other obligations. In the last 100 years, there has been a major shift in how single women are perceived in society and how they should live their lives. More women are choosing to remain single than ever before because they have steadily gained on – and are in some ways surpassing – men in education and employment. From 1970 (seven years after the Equal Pay Act was passed) to 2007, women’s earnings grew by 44%, compared with 6% for men (Government of Canada, 2016)). Women are also more likely than men to go to university; in 2010, 55% of all bachelor graduates between 25 to 29 years of age were female (Government of Canada, 2016).

Among the population that was never married in Canada, there was a large increase in the proportions for those in their twenties and thirties in 2011 compared to 1981. For young adults aged 25 to 29, the proportion who were never married rose from 26% of this population in 1981 to 73.1%in 2011 (Milan, 2011). The number of people living alone has been growing, and we see this reflected in the senior population with nearly 50% aging alone without a spouse, partner or living child (Sherer, 2004; Tang, Galbraith & Truong, 2019). The baby boom generation is now transitioning into their senior years, and because this cohort is characterized as having few children than past generations and their high rates of divorce, they may be at risk of experiencing social isolation.

Many of these seniors who live alone are finding it more difficult as they age with multiple chronic diseases, even if they have been married and have children, because of globalization, many families and relations are living further from each other and cannot offer support. Seniors in these situations, with little or no support, are known as elder orphans.

An Ever-Single Woman’s Support Network

Elder orphans encompasses both male and female orphans, but the number of female elder orphans is higher because females have a longer life expectancy than males, which contributes to an increased likelihood of chronic health conditions (Sherer, 2004; Ward, 1979). For those who have married, as females are likely to live longer, their spouse may pass away before them and they are unlikely to remarry than older men (Gubrium, 1975). The literature also shows that women generally have limited income and financial resources in old age due to gender inequality in the workforce and time away from the workforce to fulfill caregiving roles (Sherer, 2004). Although it is not for certain, but is assumed most older women who are/were married and have children can count on them for support in times of need, financially, emotionally and physically (Utz & Nordmeyer, 2007).

For the ever-single older woman, her life trajectory was quite similar to other women in western cultures, they took on the role of caregiving within their birth family, caring for siblings when they were young, taking up a job that was related to caregiving in nursing or education for example, and then living with and caring for her parents until their death (Johnson & Catalano, 1981; Matthews, 1983; Utz & Nordmeyer, 2007). When they enter their third age, the sources of support for these ever-single older women, is lacking as they are without spouse and children. Their financial resources may also be less than other older women who have been/are married even if they have been employed during their working years due to the gender pay gap, and so they are disadvantaged in saving for retirement.

As mentioned previously, there are some research about the social support needs of elderly married couples or childlessness (Johnson & Catalano, 1981; Ward, 1979), however, there is little to be found on those unmarried and childless and distinctly about female experiences. This suggests that this particular group of the elderly population receive less social support, are more isolated and rely more on distant kin and friends for emotional and instrumental support than elderly women who are married or parents. However, there are a small number of research that also shows that they are more active than other seniors, with a spouse and/or child, in their social (and potential support) networks. The reason for this might be that they may have had more time, during their adult life, to form large and/or varied social networks of support. Most often, women are able to build social networks through volunteering, church, hobby, interest and exercise groups (Matthews, 1983; Ward, 1979).

Types of Informal Support

Living alone in the 21st century has become increasingly a way of life for many people. In Canada, relatively few care recipients aged 65 and over (14%) actually live with the caregiver. The majority (70%) of care recipients are living in their own homes, and 12% live in health care facility (Tang, Galbraith & Truong, 2019). An increasing number of studies show that caregiving is often undertaken by friends, neighbours and other community members, rather than by biological or legal family members (Turner & Findlay, 2012). Senior women living alone were more likely than those living in couples to have more frequent contact with informal support, nearly one senior woman in five (18%) living alone reported getting together daily with one or more members of their friends (Tang, Galbraith & Truong, 2019).

Types of informal support can include tasks that provide instrumental care, helping with intimate care, assisting to access service providers, providing companionship and sometimes even financial support. For ever-single women without family support because of a lack of members or geographical distance, they turn to friends and neighbours. The support from these non-kin members are identified as familial by comparing it to a biological family relationship, “like a sister to me” (Adams, 1987; Johnson & Catalano, 1981), and has qualities such as: enduringness, periods of co-residence, extensive traveling together like vacations and holidays, and in some cases involvement with the other’s extended family (Adams, 1987; Matthews, 1983). As informal support networks are mostly formed through volunteering, work, place of worship, or other community groups, care appears to be rooted in the concept of reciprocity (Adams, 1987). Caregiving plays a role in these relationships; however, it is friendship that is the main motivator of their care arrangements. Caregivers viewed the provision of care for the receiver to be a natural part of friendship. Both parties recognize that by being present in each other’s lives and providing social and emotional support, they both benefit from the friendship.

Challenges of Informal Support

As we age, our family and friends may move away, pass away or lose touch with us due to conflict or other reasons. The size of family networks diminishes somewhat by age group. Women aged 75 and over (51%) were slightly less likely than those aged 65 to 74 (57%) to have five or more family members whom they felt close to. Similar differences are observed with respect to having close friends. Women aged 75 and over were more likely (15%) than younger women to have no friends whom they felt close to (Adams, 1987; Zhang & Hayward, 2001).

Most ever-single women and elder orphans may argue that they do not need support as they have lived most of their lives independently and functioned sufficiently well on their own in old age. They may have more confidence in their ability to handle their health and well-being, but as they age and experience a decline in their physical and cognitive functions, they may be unprepared for the things they cannot do (Gubrium, 1975; Johnson & Catalano, 1981). They may leave a cough to develop into pneumonia and so they need to be hospitalized. Or they may be used to living alone but as they start to lose peers and friends due to old age, their social support circle grows smaller and become increasingly isolated. As with any relationship, one must work to keep it, chronic health conditions and declining health make it difficult for ever-single women and elder orphans to participate in social relationships and social activities.

An indirect consequence of informal support shines the light on the experience of caregivers. Seniors who are single and have informal support are more likely to report unmet needs than seniors with a spouse (Turner & Findlay, 2012). Informal support responsibilities, especially non-blood related support, can become a burden on the caregiver, especially when the receiver needs more than the caregiver can give. This is especially challenging for informal support whose caregiving roles are not clearly defined. Although 95% of informal support reported positive aspects of caregiving, 56% encounter difficulties and challenges on a regular basis. They find caring for their family or friend to be emotionally demanding (17%), not have enough time for themselves (12%), stressful (10%), and tiring (7%) (Turner & Findlay, 2012).

This is an issue as many informal support caregivers (47% are aged 65 and over) are in a similar age cohort as the receiver and will also have their own chronic health issues to manage (Turner & Findlay, 2012). They may end up neglecting their own health to care for a friend, or there will come a time when they reach a limit in the provision of care and stop providing support. Another challenge is that ever-single women may need to plan for someone to assume legal rights to make decisions when they are no longer able to. However, this may not be a responsibility some informal support caregivers are willing or able to take. Ever-single women should be educated about advanced directives and creating a plan of care fare in advance of needing acute care.

Theory and Application

Despite all the changes that have occurred since the Women’s Movement and all the “opportunities” available to them, women’s lives are still framed by gender. It is always an element in women’s interactions with others and the opportunities that are or are not available to them. For females, typical early life transitional stages include education, training and employment, followed by marriage, child-rearing and caregiving. Later transitions in life may be going back into the workforce, then into retirement but also continuing to provide caregiving (Utz & Nordmeyer, 2007). Yet there is more heterogeneity in seniors 65 and over than any other age group within a society because as they have gone through life, they have accumulated more experiences and knowledge through their specific transitions within the life course (Sherer, 2004; Ward, 1979).

Research in the 1970s proposed to look at age stratification (Utz & Nordmeyer, 2007), assuming that those in the same age cohort will have the same experiences. However, this does not distinguish the different experiences of individuals within that cohort. Even though an age cohort within the same time period there are still distinctions of social class, gender, education, ethnicity, the effects of racism, sexism and ableism, which may influence their experiences differently (Utz & Nordmeyer, 2007) and our understanding of the situation of senior women.

We can adopt a life course perspective to understand the similarities and disparities across the female life course. Elder theorized the life course as based on five key principles: life-span development, human agency, historical time and geographic place, timing of decisions, and linked lives. As a concept, a life course is defined as ‘a sequence of socially defined events and roles that the individual enacts over time’ (Elder, 1998). These socially defined events and roles do not necessarily progress in a succession, but rather represent the sum total of the person’s actual experience. Thus the concept of life course implies age-differentiated social experiences distinct from uniform life-cycle stages.

The experience of a single, unmarried, childless 80 year old is very different from a 60 year old. That experience will be even more different for a person of a different race or social background. The literature reviewed helps to inform me of a possible path for my life as I age, yet it will most likely become a new path as my personal experience will be influenced by new changes in society, policies, technology and health care. I have siblings, a younger sister and a younger brother, and my parents are in their 60s and living in Hong Kong and whilst we do not have to provide care for them yet, upon reflection I think it would difficult for us to support them financially, physically and emotionally due to personal circumstances. They have children but their reality might be more similar to those who do not have children for informal support.

When I look at where I am in life and my social circle, I think about the time when I had all my friends around me in my twenties at university. Now my friends are spread out across the world, some have married and some are single. So far, it has been wonderful to have friends in different countries, which allows me to travel the world to visit them. However, when I think about the importance of having a social support network in old age I do not know how we will manage. I am part of the minority of people who refuse to spend all my time on facebook and other social media and networks. It will be interesting to continue to observe how the experience of aging will differ for our generation where relationships are more fluid and ever changing.


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