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Kirsty Woodard: The invisible non-grannies

Kirsty Woodard from Ageing Without Children Consultancy discusses the danger of branding all older people ‘grannies’.

I often describe people ageing without children as ‘the invisible million’ because around 1.5m people over 65 do not have any children.

The coverage of coronavirus has thrown into stark and frankly frightening relief how deep-rooted that invisibility is. It has now become completely normal to frame the coverage and discussion around older people in terms of ‘don’t kill your granny’ or ‘if coronavirus doesn’t get granny, loneliness will’.

Older people, it seems, now equals granny. Not a granny? well then as far as the coronavirus narrative on ageing goes, you simply don’t exist. Only a few weeks ago the ONS published their paper on the impact of the increasing number of childless women on the care system.

The paper clearly delineated that, because they could not rely on family care to the extent those with children do, they were more likely to need paid for care especially residential care.

People ageing without children are at least 25% more likely to be in a care home, some studies have put it as high as 50%. Not that you would know this, as the coverage of the care home issue relentlessly focuses on those with children and grandchildren.

There is an obvious reason for this; it’s peoples children and grandchildren that are lobbying. It’s they who go to the papers, appear on news bulletins, lobby MPs and write letters.

Given that is the case, it is vital that the large age organisations concerned with age and ageing remember to speak up for people ageing without children, clearly identifying them as a forgotten and overlooked group but sadly, with a few exceptions, this isn’t happening.

The digital divide discussion also overlooks the crucial role of the family in getting and keeping older people online.

Similarly, although the British Society of Gerontology raised how the government was rooting its approach on the basis that no one lived alone, generally there has been next to no focus on those who do and who have no family support.

The British Society of Gerontology said:

‘There is an implicit assumption in many discussions about COVID-19 that people will have co-resident family members to look after them. To recognise that they are ill, to keep them hydrated, to help them if they are unable to get back to bed after going to the toilet, to try to encourage some nutrition or to call an ambulance.

‘Co-resident family members can also advocate for hospitalisation or hospital care if needed.’

There is another reason though beyond coronavirus coverage as to why the substitution of ‘granny’ for older people matters.

Granny continues to frame the issues around how we support older within a family narrative. Our health and care system is designed around the unspoken but completely baked-in assumption that all older people have a family to offer support.

The government has been quite clear that they expect the family to do more and their sole focus on social care seems to be about the prevention of selling the ‘family home’ to pay for care.

Where do these narratives leave people ageing without children? The one organisation formed to campaign for them was never able to get funding despite repeated efforts and had to close.

There are no national resources or campaigns directed towards this specific group of older people. They are completely invisible in mainstream discussions on coronavirus and more worryingly in what social care looks like post-coronavirus.

With no organisation to lobby for them, people ageing without children are relying on those organisations and individuals involved in these discussions to remember they exist, understand their issues and consider how their particular needs can be integrated into solutions.

It could easily be different of course. The large age charities could work together to highlight this issue, resources could be directed towards the development of groups for people ageing without children.

And funding found for further research into understanding both the experiences of people ageing without children and the impact on services and support.

Some organisations have really stepped up; the National Care Forum has funded the development of a toolkit for organisations on being ‘AWOC Confident’ which should be available in the winter.

The PRAMA Foundation took over the hosting of the Ageing Well Without Childre website and Independent Age has highlighted people ageing without children within their research on marginalised groups.

Not all older people are ‘grannies’ and their value to society is not less because of it.

They deserve not to be erased from coronavirus coverage because they do not have children or grandchildren to lobby for them.

Older people without children matter because we all matter. Remember that next time you use granny when you really mean older people.

Kirsty has 25 years’ experience of working in the field of ageing. She founded Ageing Without Children Consultanc in 2014 in response to the invisibility of older people without children or family in discussions and planning on ageing.

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