It’s one of the most common comebacks to announcing you won’t be having children. “But won’t you be lonely in old age?”
I have a wonderful CF friend – she’s nearly 50, but her energy and colorful personality belie her age. Over coffee recently, as an experiment, I posed the question to her. “Do you ever think about old age and whether, without kids, you’ll be lonely?” Her response was immediate. “I’ve never been lonely in my life ever – why would I be lonely in old age?”
She got me thinking about two of my mother’s elderly friends. Both are in their 80’s. Beverly has four children; Anna has none. Anna loves her life. She is involved in a number of clubs and groups, drives all over the city to specialist stores to buy interesting food, has many young friends, looks after herself and her house, and loves the quiet time she gets in the evenings to read in bed. Next month she’s off to a cruise through Asia.
Amazingly, Anna has no family at all. She is German-born and moved here with her second husband; an adventurous kindred spirit whom she met while working in gem mines in Western Australia. Her sister is no longer alive and she has no nieces and nephews.
Which one of the two friends complains constantly of feeling lonely? Beverly. In a tone that suggests she feels her children are too focused on their own lives.
A couple of years before I met her, Anna had a small heart attack and spent a week in hospital. “What was that like?” I asked tentatively, scared at what the answer might be. After all, without children and ill in a hospital bed, wouldn’t you be totally alone? “I got tired of all the visitors,” she said. “I had no energy and people just kept coming.”
This year Anna couldn’t accept an invitation to our family Christmas, because she had two other competing offers.
Another friend in his 70’s, David, has never married and never had children. “He travels fastest, who travels alone” is his driving principle. David is on the board of an arts organization I worked for and we have remained firm buddies. Secretly, although he never says so, I think he’s impressed that I didn’t launch straight into reproduction mode after marrying my second husband. David is so busy and so in demand that he can’t sleep at night lately, worrying how he’ll get everything done.
While I was living in the UK, I had the great honor of meeting my deceased grandmother’s cousin, Ellen. In her 90’s, she had never married and never had children. She lived alone in her own house, just around the corner from her niece. Out of choice, her niece took her to church on Sundays and shopping on other days, as well as inviting her for dinner some nights. Not out of obligation, she was quick to explain to me, but because Ellen is such great company. In the previous year, Ellen had taken her final cruise to New York from Scotland. She’d decided she probably needed to stop traveling long-haul.
My sister’s two children, boys now in their 20’s, have both left their New Zealand home to move to the UK themselves. It is unlikely they will be back in a hurry or maybe ever – there are too many opportunities for both of them in their respective fields in Europe. They write once in a while and even less often they call. They are young men with the world to discover and questionable communication skills. After two decades of raising children, my sister does not have nearly the number of friends and social networks that I do. Fortunately she’s an independent spirit and relieved to have her offspring off her plate. But this begs the question – what happens to parents who have children in order to avoid loneliness in old age, only to watch them move to the other side of the world? This is a scenario that is more common than not these days.
Personally I’d prefer to be CF in old age. I’ll tell you why. First, I have no expectation that my children will be around or should look after me. They don’t exist, so I’d better be independent. No expectations mean no disappointment. Second, I don’t want children with all sorts of possible agendas planning my last years for me; putting me in a home I don’t like, fussing about my health, telling me what I should and shouldn’t be doing. And third, we all know that in many instances children and grandchildren don’t really want to be visiting their elderly relatives. They do it because they feel they must. I can’t bear the thought of causing that sense of tiresome obligation in someone. I’m looking forward instead to visits from young friends and those who I have mentored over the years; who want to be there because we can talk and laugh about common passions and interests.
And for the times when people don’t visit? I’ll be reading, reading, reading all those books I haven’t had time to get through in my busy working, traveling life. Closing my eyes and scanning the memories of the exciting and passionate adventures I have had. Remembering the love affairs. Writing stories and novels. Doing part-time voluntary work in a second-hand bookstore, in order to meet people all day long who love literature. Cuddling my cat. Walking out of the apartment that we intend to own in a funky suburb, to catch a bus to the sea. Sitting in my local café, where they know and love me, wearing an eccentric hat and writing letters to my friends around the globe. Joining and creating online communities. Listening to music, feeling the sun through the window and letting my heart soar. Or, like my beautiful Great Aunt, who died slowly of cancer, brightening the nurses’ days with my sparkling eyes and wicked sense of humor.
With my address books bursting at the seams, time and energy over the years to nurture many close friendships with people of all ages from 18 to 90, close contact with people all over the world, a raft of passions yet to be fully explored and an eager interest in the world, the forecast for my latter years is looking pretty healthy.
But I do worry about those parents with no time for anything else but the children who will one day fly the nest for far-flung ports. Has anyone asked them? Won’t they be lonely in old age?