Kinless Aging: Independent, Yes, But …

A new wrinkle in growing older is popping up as Baby Boomers age. Called “kinless aging,” it specifically focuses on older adults without spouses, partners, children, or siblings. Our generation’s fierce independence enabled great societal breakthroughs. But as we age, many of us are without the social supports or financial resources to deal with the health and housing problems encountered with age.

The Baby Boomer generation is the first with noticeably lower marriage rates, higher divorce rates, and fewer children. Additionally, we Boomers were the first to have an influx of “gray divorce” — divorce over age 50. Additionally, thanks to medical advances, we’re living a lot longer.

What that means, according to a study in The Journals of Gerontology in 2017, is that an estimated 6.6 percent of U.S. adults 55 and older have no living spouse or biological children. Add to that an estimated 1 percent who also have no siblings — and for women over age 75, add 3 percent.

That doesn’t sound like much, but in the 2017 study, it equaled close to a million older adults without any familial support, and 370,000 women over 75. Additionally, the study showed that seniors who are Black, female, and have lower levels of wealth have particularly high rates of kinlessness.

Examining the Issue

Whether they come from small families, are the last family member still alive, or were ostracized from their families — because of beliefs, life choices, sexual orientation, or other estrangement issues — all of these kinless older adults lack the support systems that were prevalent in previous generations.

Some Baby Boomers have prepared for living alone as they age, but these mostly are people with the financial means to buy long-term care insurance and/or to join continuing care communities. When these are not affordable options, preparing for the additional health and home care costs of aging alone is more difficult. For many people, social security and pension income isn’t low enough to qualify for Medicaid, but isn’t high enough for the kind of health and personal care they may require.

Another difficulty is the social isolation inherent in many kinless seniors’ daily lives. In previous blogs, I’ve touched on loneliness and depression in older adults, and that certainly increases with kinless seniors. “Solo agers” are less likely to participate in social, cultural, or religious groups and service clubs. Lack of social interaction can predict later cognitive disability. According to the 2017 study, kinless older adults die earlier than those with a support network.

A Mixture of Responses

To combat kinlessness, some Baby Boomers have constructed “family groups” of friends and neighbors, who help each other out, for example, picking up prescriptions or doing a neighbor’s laundry when one of their group is ill. But as many researchers have noted, there still comes a time when “substitution” no longer works, usually when daily activities like bathing and using the bathroom can no longer be done without assistance.

With regional and community programs lagging behind the reality of older adults, several new initiatives are being tried. The village movement, a grassroots movement that coordinates critical services for older adults; shared housing; and co-housing all have had moderate success, but the cost of some of these options — particularly some village and co-housing arrangements — far exceed true affordable housing.

Communities need to catch up with their demographics — and it’s not just Baby Boomers. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science indicates that kinless aging is just beginning. Projections show that it will increase greatly as the generations behind Baby Boomers age, many of whom have even fewer siblings, and are even less likely to marry and have children of their own.  

So Where Do We Go From Here?

This isn’t a problem to be corrected. It is a situation to be anticipated and managed. We need ever more expansive services, including people skilled in navigating the government and insurance programs. It really will “take a village” to manage its elders, particularly the proud “kinless” members of the community. 

Attention and resources need to ramp up to provide the integrated network of supports aging residents will need. Start looking for programs and services in your community. Ask questions about the availability and scope of services. 

Your inquiries should be seen as a demonstration of interest and demand, factors that drive businesses and agencies to change the products and services they offer. Couple these efforts with steady pressure on government, and the conversations and programming about aging in your community should evolve more quickly.

Third Chapter Living celebrates, challenges, informs and promotes conversations about housing issues affecting the Baby Boomer Generation. Check out our website to learn more about our work. Our Facebook Group is a resource center with tips and recommendations on navigating those issues. Share experiences with others who are looking for Housing Downsizing Tools that allow them to successfully age-in-place.

1 Comments

  1. Joe on January 24, 2023 at 10:24 pm

    Tine to sprout some TCL support groups.

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