Are non-parents better equipped for old age?

By Allix Denham 

Old people who have face-to-face contact with family or friends three times a week are less likely to get depressed than those who don’t, according to a 2015 University of Michigan study. ‘Research has long supported the idea that strong social bonds strengthen people’s mental health,’ says lead author Dr Alan Teo. ‘Phone calls and digital communication do not have the same power as face-to-face social interactions in helping to stave off depression’.

As we continue to live longer, this is a growing problem. In the UK, there are said to be 800,000 people who are chronically lonely, according to The Campaign to End Loneliness. Not being able to see family – for whatever reason – is one thing. But why are so many people apparently friendless?

Is it because their whole lives were centred around their families, and they never took the time to get involved in social activities for themselves? Did they feel it was wrong or self-indulgent to do so, because family had to come first? Or perhaps they uprooted themselves in later life to be closer to their offspring, but then failed to make new friends?

I’m sure close-knit families can be lovely (I don’t come from one myself) but isn’t it healthier to achieve a balance, and have outside interests as well? And I hate to sound harsh, but shouldn’t it be up to every individual to make sure life is busy and active? You can’t expect your offspring to be your only source of company and entertainment. That’s just stifling.

By contrast, I have a very dear friend who is just beginning to slow down, in his eighties. Twice married with no children, he has an army of friends of all ages – because he made it happen. He was never one for sitting around waiting for life to come to him. If he had a quiet Sunday coming up, he’d organise a lunch and get people round (It helped that he was a sensational cook). His life has been a whirlwind of social activity.

I can’t help but think he’s like that because he didn’t have the cushion of family to fall back on. He was, and still is, naturally more resourceful. And he’s far from alone – other non-parents I know look pretty well set up for their old age. Either they’re extremely self-reliant, or they’ve indulged their passions and are keen golfers, tennis players, members of clubs and associations, and generally active in the local community. They are not about to spend their old age waiting for someone else to make life happen. They’re perfectly capable of doing that for themselves.

Loneliness in old age

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