Childless or not, expect to take care of yourself

Lately I’ve been living a double life. On March 25, my 95-year-old father broke his upper leg, the same leg with the artificial hip from when he broke it in 2014. He wasn’t doing anything special, just washing dishes when the bone came apart and he fell on the floor, banging his head so hard on the wall he left a layer of hair behind. He was alone, just like he was with the hip. Luckily, he had his cell phone in his pocket.

Since then, I have been traveling back and forth between Oregon and California, trying to do as much as I can to help. I was there when Dad moved from the hospital to a skilled nursing facility, when he left there for a nursing home, and when he went back to his own house last week. In the last four months, I have spent 34 days sleeping in my childhood bedroom and hanging out with Dad.

But I’m not there now. A paid caregiver ($27 an hour) is there for three hours in the morning and three hours around suppertime. Sometimes people visit. My brother Mike drives seven hours every weekend to help him, but mostly he’s alone. My father has two children in their 60s, two grandchildren in their 30s, and three great-grandchildren under the age of 4. None of us are there. We live far away. We have jobs to do and lives to lead. And Dad wants it that way. When I suggested that maybe my dog and I should just move in, he said no.

Those of us without children worry about being alone in old age. I’m alone most of the time. It’s scary. But the truth is that for most families, even when there are children, there’s no guarantee they will be on call 24/7 to help. I do know people who devote their lives to caring for their elderly parents, but for most of us it’s a juggling act. If you have children of your own, you need to take care of them, too. Even you don’t have kids, you have other responsibilities.

You can’t be everywhere at once. Last week when I was moving Dad back to his house, my brother was in the middle of a wildfire disaster at his home near Yosemite. With fire all around them, his family was ordered to evacuate. From Merced, they watched the news and prayed their home and their town would still be standing when they went back. They were among the lucky ones. Their house and their town survived, and they were allowed to return after nearly a week. But during that time, Mike was not about to run to San Jose to load Dad’s wheelchair into the car.

People are always telling me about how having children does not assure that you won’t wind up alone. It’s true. Granted, my brother and I have done a lot for our father. We have paid his bills, mowed his lawn, and interacted with doctors, social workers, and nursing home staff. We arranged his transitions from one institution to another, and I sat with him at each of his appointments with the orthopedic surgeon. If there’s another crisis, we’ll get there as soon as we can.

I have no children. What will I do when it’s my turn? What will you do? So far, friends have helped me when I needed surgery or was stuck on crutches with a sprained ankle. I already have my legal paperwork in order in case someone else needs to make decisions for me. But I know I need to make more formal arrangements for the future. If I don’t acquire a new husband or a housemate, I plan to move into some kind of group living situation so there will be people around to help. I don’t want to live alone forever.

If I had children, would I want them to give up their lives to take care of me? No.

Ultimately we are all on our own. So let’s figure it out. Who will you call if you get hurt? Who will handle your bills if you can’t do it? Who will make phone calls and talk to the doctors? If you do end up having children, that’s a bonus. They’ll be glad you got yourself organized.

What do you think about aging without kids? Have you made any plans? Please comment.

6 thoughts on “Childless or not, expect to take care of yourself

  1. This is something we talk about a lot, as we are the ones left to care for my parents-in-law. We haven’t made specific plans yet, as we’re tossing up where we might live when we retire. We have no family in this city, but it is where we’ve had our life, and where our friends live. What we are aware of though, is the need to make decisions, and to make them early! I often write about this too.


  2. I’m just trying to make sure I have a decent pension, so that I can pay for carers.

    I have *just* stopped working full time – I’ve cut my hours to four days a week, in an attempt to cope with working and caring for my husband. Of course, he’s annoyed that I haven’t stopped working completely, and thinks that I’m ‘greedy’ for worrying about my pension.

    I have no siblings and there’s zero chance I’d get any help from his kids if I needed it – I had to cope by myself when he had his bypass (open-heart) and – later – his stroke.


  3. I have two elderly grandmothers and they both reside in nursing facilities. Their children are nearby but not equipped to handle their medical needs. It is such a common misconception that children will take care of you in old age. There are so many factors that could impede this from happening. I will be getting long-term-care insurance and continue to contribute to my IRAs. Not having to pay over 200K to raise a child does have advantages–more income.


    • This was my plan, too, until both my in-laws ended up partly disabled in their 80s, and living in an assisted living.

      There is so much to do that isn’t covered by the paid aides: We get my in-laws new clothes in stripes because they love stripes, the correct shoes for their orthopedic needs, lotion in their favorite scents, and apply it to their dry skin, etc etc.

      Who will do any of this for us? I worry about this *daily.* The in-laws are three decades older than us, so it’s ridiculous to worry about it now, but it’s the one part our childless status that I cannot emotionally resolve and let go. I would appreciate any suggestions anyone has. Thank you, Sue.


      • I have been thinking about this a lot lately. My parents are still pretty young, but my dad had a stroke right before Christmas as a result of an injury. My mom stayed at my house and each day either my brother or I drove her to the hospital and back to my house because she was afraid to drive (they live in a very rural area and the roads where the hospital was are horrendous-I don’t think think I could live there, either!). It isn’t the medical needs that I am concerned about, but the level of emotional support we could provide with rides, I took care of hosting the family Christmas, I was there with my mom making her tea and helping pay the bills. I only have one niece by marriage and two teenage cousins. I don’t know if those bonds would be strong enough that they could come help me the way I was able to help my mom. It plays out different at work when you say, “I’m helping my parent” vs “I’m helping my cousin.”


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