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Old and alone

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Science

Old and alone

Many in the ‘me generation’ face a lonely future 

Nearly one-quarter of Americans over age 65 are at risk of becoming “elder orphans,” a new term used to describe aging people who are single and childless, according to a study conducted at the geriatric and palliative medicine department of the North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York.

Increasing numbers of single people who do not have children are heading into their senior years alone. One-third of Americans between the ages of 45 and 63 are single, an increase of 50 percent since 1980. The number of women aged 40 to 44 who are childless has nearly doubled since that time.

Elder orphans face a wide range of potential difficulties, including health issues, mental health decline, and premature death. Research author Maria Torroella Carney said they will require more community and social services, emergency response, and education. Although it is hard to draw conclusions based on one study, it is likely that decisions to remain childless, which increased with the baby boom generation born between 1946 and 1964, are a contributing factor. “My generation was one of the first that elected not to have children,” Joyce Varner, director of the Adult-Geron Primary Care Nurse Practitioner program at the University of South Alabama, told CNN.

Varner began to see the problem surfacing in the 1990s. “I see a lot of sadness and regret on the part of the elderly people who decided not to have children,” she said. “A lot of fear. ‘How are we going to get care? Is there going to be anyone with me at the end of life?’”

“It comes down to the chickens have come home to roost for people who were young in the ’70s and ’80s and thought children were a burden,” said Glenn Stanton, director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family. This generation became known as the “Me generation,” spawning a societal devaluation of children and the double-income, no-kids group that didn’t want to be tied down. They didn’t want children to get in the way of “their self-actualization,” he said.

With the advent of the pill, having sex no longer had to mean having babies; with legalized abortion, becoming pregnant no longer had to mean becoming a parent. Environmentalists, meanwhile, sounded the alarm about a population explosion, claiming the earth didn’t have enough resources for everybody and we were ruining our world. The ideological impact of those warnings made remaining childless seem like a virtue, Stanton said. But it was blown out of proportion. The population bomb never exploded. And now a significant number of the Me generation are facing their senior years alone.

Smoke screen

E-cigarettes, once promoted as an aid to stop smoking, are not reducing the number of teen smokers. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of middle- and high-school students using e-cigarettes has tripled in just one year, from 660,000 to 2 million students between 2013 and 2014. Overall tobacco use has not declined in the last three years. Nearly one-quarter of high-school and 7 percent of middle-school students use some type of tobacco product.

E-cigarettes are not harmless. They combine a poisonous substance with unsafe chemical mixtures, said Garry Sigman, director of the Loyola University Health System Adolescent Medicine Program.

“We want parents to know that nicotine is dangerous for kids at any age, whether it’s an e-cigarette, hookah, cigarette, or cigar,” said CDC director Tom Frieden. “Adolescence is a critical time for brain development. Nicotine exposure at a young age may cause lasting harm to brain development, promote addiction, and lead to sustained tobacco use.”

The modern aspect of e-cigarettes appeals to adolescents whose world revolves around technology and electronics. “The development and marketing of e-cigarettes has the potential of hooking a whole new generation on nicotine,” Sigman said. —J.B.

In the blood

Each year more than 14,000 women in the United States die of ovarian cancer, a disease often undetected in the early stages because symptoms frequently do not appear until it is well-advanced. Current screening methods have not decreased the death rate.

But now, researchers at the University College London (UCL) have developed a blood test for ovarian cancer that tracks changing levels of the protein CA-125. The new test correctly diagnosed 86 percent of deadly and invasive epithelial ovarian cancer cases during the 14-year study—twice as many cases as conventional screening methods are able to pick up, according to The Independent.

The study included more than 200,000 post-menopausal women, aged 50 and above, randomly assigned to different screening strategies. “While this is a significant achievement, we need to wait until later this year when the final analysis of the trial is completed to know whether the cancers detected through screening were caught early enough to save lives,” said UCL professor Usha Menon. —J.B.

Comments

  • LauraMN
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:14 pm

    I am 61, unmarried and childless. Unmarried because no one ever asked (yes, that was my era); maybe I should have hung out at bars instead of church? And childless because the Bible suggests the former before the latter.  It means I have to be intentional about building "family" from Christian friends. I have a number of female friends from high school who have found themselves in the same condition.

  • LJH00's picture
    LJH00
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:14 pm

    We are all in need of grace, whether we have children or not. There is zero correlation between selfishness and parental status. Examples abound. When we suggest a connection, either directly or indirectly, it causes unwarranted hurt to many faithful Christians. Perhaps some will read the article on this website on the cost of following Christ.

  • Lizzy's picture
    Lizzy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:14 pm

    Greg Burtnett,Regarding your comment - ok, what was the intent of the article?  The way it came across to me was that those of us without children are that way because it is our fault and now we are just going to be a drain on everyone else as we age.  Are we going to be old and alone?  Probably. Because much of the (American) church has no room apparently for people who were not blessed with a family my husband and I have also been middle-aged and alone (except for each other).  My husband and I married in our 20's in 1979.  We fully expected to have children and it wasn't until decades of prayer later that I finally accepted it was God's will that we remain childless.  (Even now as I write this the tears fill my eyes for what I so desperately desired.)  I have experienced much of the same heartache as KRportland and when I read her comment all I could say was thank you for stating what I didn't.  We have spent much of our married life in a lonely space within the church as unless you are in a really large church, you are not part of the singles and you are not part of the married with children group, and very little fellowship occurs that isn't centered around the issues pertinent to those two groups.  I used to hope that as we grew older there would be fellowship that didn't revolve around families, but especially for the women their focus just expands to include their grandchildren and they have even less time to spend caring about others not part of their biological family circle.  That is why my previous post pleaded for the church to go back to the Biblical definition of family as one that encompasses brothers and sisters in the Lord in a meaningful way.  As for the calls to extend grace in this area - grace is what God gives us when we deserve punishment instead, so all the calls to extend grace to the childless implies that we are somehow guilty and that is why we were not blessed.  As a believer I am just as dependent on grace as every other believer (probably more so than most), but this is one area where to have it stated over and over just reinforces the belief that the reason we weren't blessed with children is because we were somehow found less worthy than those blessed.  I struggled with that false belief for years thinking that if I just figured out how to become worthy we would be blessed with a family.  It is only recently that I am learning to accept that God chooses the blessings we are given and they depend less on merit than on what God's calling for us is as individuals.   And blessings are given so that we might in turn use those blessings to bless others and thus show a watching world the immense love our Father has for us.  Instead of focusing on the world's concern of what a burden these lonely old people will be, wouldn't a more godly approach be to recognize that as a huge ministry opportunity to demonstrate Christ's love which He has so richly blessed us with and which is far beyond even the blessing of children?

  • LJH00's picture
    LJH00
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:14 pm

    Selfishness and shallowness are daily demonstrated by all kinds of people, both those with children and those without, as are generosity and great work for the Kingdom. Thank you, KRportland, for the reminder that we should show grace towards each other.

  • Greg Burtnett
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:14 pm

    The comments on 'tone' I think warranted a statement; however being a 'buster' with boomer tendencies I saw they party life of my parents age people and the 'have it all now' that really merits lots of chickens roosting (recognizing there is grace for that and that's what the Church is for).

    Are there other circumstances? Of course. Is marriage and children for everyone? Of course not. But it seems myopic to criticize he article as some comments have for making a culturally appropriate statement: Christians (and other 'adults') should get off their 'you offended me' high horse and understand the article for what it was. Don't take offense where none is intended.

  • David Osborn
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:14 pm

    This article might make some valid sociological points but it will be a source of discouragement for many single Christians.  We are childless not out of selfishness, but because it is God's sovereign call on our lives.  How about a few articles regarding the fruitful lives of single believers and how church families can better fold them into the family of God?

  • KRportland
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:14 pm

    The tone of "Old and Alone" left a sour taste in my mouth.  I left the decision to bear children to God.  His answer was no. There are many places where I have found it difficult to fit in.  There are the people who assumed I selfishly wanted a career.  And there are those who didn't know what to talk about  when children couldn't be the mutual subject.  I've run into women who felt I judged them for not working.  Only God can see our hearts.  So let's show grace towards each other.

  • Lizzy's picture
    Lizzy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:14 pm

    I agree with LHJ00 that the tone of this article is extremely unfortunate, especially the "chickens coming home to roost" comment.  This view of life - that God will of course bless us with a spouse and children because that is the way we think the world should work is cultural not Biblical.  God's plan isn't for everyone to have children, it's not even for everyone to be married, if it was Paul wouldn't extol the virtues of remaining single.  Yes children are a blessing, but blessings are not given to be selfishly clutched to the chest.  For the Christian, the extended family is made up of our fellow believers - we shouldn't be thinking of family as just the nuclear one.  Rather than thanking God that you are not like all those childless ones, perhaps you could share your blessing of family with those who have none. 

  • William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:14 pm

    Yes, there are a myriad of ways that people end in these circumstances of being alone. But the preponderance of cases is probably going to be not having children by choice. Plus your average gay male is going to be friendless by 40, cast aside as worn out by his own culture.

  • socialworker
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:14 pm

    It was more of a cultural comment I think.  I almost got caught up in that push in the early 80's to have a career and impact the world and think about having a family later.  That's when God changed the course of my life.  My husband and I got pregnant despite serious attempts at birth control and when my first child was born, I had an almost immediate change of perspective toward life and abortion, serving and being served.  If life had gone my way, I think I would be terribly sad or at least at a disadvantage right now.

  • LJH00's picture
    LJH00
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:14 pm

    The tone of "Old and Alone" that seeks to cast blame for "chickens coming home to roost" is deeply unfortunate, presumptuous as to people's motives, and lacking in compassion. There are myriad ways people can end up in these circumstances.