Who’s Going to Take Care of You When You’re Old?

I think I drove a nice, but naive, woman a little crazy yesterday.  I hope I also gave her something to think about.  Here’s what happened.  She and her kid sat beside me on a train to Long Island.  I made the mistake of saying her kid was cute.  The kid was cute –that wasn’t the mistake– but my comment opened the door to a much too long conversation that eventually led to me telling this woman I had no husband and no kids…and that I was ok with that.

Then this happened:

Lady:  Oh no!  Well, who’s going to take care of you when you’re old?

Me:  I don’t know for sure.  Who’s going to take care of you when you’re old?

Lady:  Well, I have a husband and kids.  They’ll take care of me.

Me:  How do you know that?

And my “How do you know that” question is when I think she wished she had just chosen a different seat.  I went on to lay out all the reasons she was no more secure in her old age than I am.  You see, life is really uncertain; there just aren’t any guarantees.  It would be wonderful if every woman who had a husband and/or kids could be assured of a loving, cared-for old age.  Unfortunately, that’s just not necessarily true.  I went on to explain to her:

A husband is no guarantee.

  • Your husband could die before you do.  That happens, you know.  
  • He could also be infirm at the same time you are, so he wouldn’t be able to take care of you.  
  • Your husband might not have the financial means to take care of you the way you need to be taken care of, so you could still end up in a sub-par nursing home.
  • Your husband just might not be emotionally equipped to care for you.  Everybody doesn’t have it in them to be a good caregiver.  
  • You guys could get a divorce before old age hits.  Lots of people do.
  • And, ya know what, your husband could also just turn out to be a jerk who doesn’t want to be bothered.

Your kids are no guarantee, either
  • Your kids may not have the financial means to take care of you.  They may have their own kids (or other issues) they need to take care of and can’t afford to do both.
  • They may live far away and can’t to be there for you all the time.
  • Your kids may not have the emotional strength to give you the care you need while they manage their own lives.  Caregiving is extremely stressful.
  • We don’t know what life will bring our way; you could outlive your kids.  Then what?
  • Unfortunately, parents and kids don’t always have good relationships.  Your  kids just might not like you enough.  Sadly, that happens sometimes. 
  • Nursing homes all over this country are filled with people not being visited by their kids, right?  

And I could just get hit by a bus. Killed suddenly, not requiring anybody to take care of me.


Statistically, I imagine a woman has a greater chance of being well-taken care of in her old age if she is a wife and/or mother, but statistics have nothing to do with any individual situation.  My friend’s elderly aunt –a dynamic spinster lady– recently had a “good, peaceful death.”  She had no husband or kids, but was lovingly cared for in the last weeks of her life by family friends who loved her.  

That’s all we really need.  Someone who loves us and is willing and able to care of us.  

This poor woman, my seatmate, eventually stopped trying to “counterpoint” me.   I made sure to keep my tone lighthearted and friendly so my commentary didn’t come across as hostile and she wouldn’t think I was a nut.  I’m not sure I accomplished the latter, though.  I think she did think I was seriously odd because her final comment to me was “I just don’t know what kind of woman wouldn’t want a husband and kids.”  She got off the train before I could answer that one.   I’m not down on husbands and kids; I know they can be really great…but not always.

 I’m thinking that if she ever sees me on the train again, she’ll probably choose another seat.  I, on the other hand, thought our exchange was fun…in a perverse kind of way.  Like I said, maybe I gave her something to think about.

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26 Responses to Who’s Going to Take Care of You When You’re Old?

  1. Cam says:

    This is a great blog. I am single with no children. In reading this blog, I see that there are others in my situation. I do not have a lot of money, but do have long term care insurance. I am looking at an additional policy especially for home health care. An insurance agent pointed out to me that home care might not be the best thing if there is no one to make sure sitters are good and that generally I would be cared for. She said an assisted living facility might be a better choice. I have many pets, and have finally realized that I have to start humanely putting them down. They are so spoiled, they would not be happy in another home, even if there were good ones available. I have been in rescue work for over 30 years and know what I speak of. Anyway, I am active in my church, but do not have close friends there. Most of my close friends live in other towns. I may go to a smaller church and make a real effort to develop some close friendships. I believe that is crucial for my situation. I have a wonderful, caring boyfriend, but he has medical issues and I have to care for him at times. I look forward to ideas gained from your blog and the online companionship of others in my situation.

  2. Rachael Lloyd says:

    What I find so painful about this is the comment: “I just don’t know what kind of woman wouldn’t want a husband and kids.” Ouch! And yes, I missed the boat. But the way I see it is I can write my life off at 40 – or start living it and enjoying it despite some disappointment along the way. PS I have worked my ass off for my private pension plus capital assets that should see to my late-life nursing care. Any spare change goes to the dog’s home.

  3. I think you give yourself a better chance if nothing else by having the options of a husband and a child or children for the future…

    When you're alone, you're really left up to fate.

    I always felt that if you raised your kids right, they'd be there for you. But, I understand, too that there are no guarantees in life whatever side of the road you may be on.

    I've come from a long line of men taking care of the women in my family, so it's hard for me to grasp at times. I admit that.

  4. Natasha says:

    A longtime reader, first time poster here.

    As a single and child-free nurse that has seen this point driven home time and time again…I got hit with this reality early in life (at 19, as a CNA in a nursing home, and now, in my late 20s, taking care of my ailing mother). We've all learned that life has no guarantees. I know that the young woman may not see the wisdom you've imparted to her right now (though this reply is really late on this topic), but she'll understand it soon enough.

  5. Ever hear of funeral planners for prepaid burials? Or, end of life directives, also preplanned? Yes, E, you did a good thing pointing out to that woman that there is more than wedding planners and midwives in the world. I tell my husband I never did want to get married but he snuck it in..haha He also makes marriage work because he recognizes hers, his, and ours, all at the right times. Magically it works.

  6. I'm late to the game in commenting, but I got turned on to your blog (and I'm following you on Twitter too!). But this post hit a nerve. “Anonymous” who replied on April 15 (why be anonymous? own your comment). Yes, there were “ifs”, but you know what, I have a real life experience I'm dealing with right now that I didn't expect to be dealing with at my age. My elderly aunt who had no children and no husband but helped raise me…I/the family had to have her admitted to a nursing home in the fall of last year. She always felt in some way that we'd take care of her and we are. Here's the kicker to lady on the train: I look around that nursing home and there are more mothers and wives there (so she's the minority) and guess what? You hardly see their family members. Where are they? I'll tell you where they are. Dealing with their own lives. Either they can't emotionally handle being a support in the caregiver category or they live too far away or they simply can't be bothered. Perhaps some wives and mothers should take a field trip to a several, not just one or two, nursing homes. It's the most eye-opening experience. Then come back and tell all of us how rosy the picture regarding having a husband/wife and child/ren are when they're in adult diapers. Truly, it's sad when you see people who supposedly should have all the support in the world, and they're sitting there in their wheelchairs or in their beds, alone, while my aunt's sister, her son, his son and I, and several family members who live hundreds of miles away fly in to visit her.

  7. D Collins says:

    I would just like to say I have enjoyed reading all comments. As such, I would like to offer a perspective to the concept presented as: some chance vs. no chance (per Anonymous).

    In the process of maturing one learns the probability of any “given” is often juxtaposed to the shifting context around that given. So whereas the given may itself be intact, the likely circumstances by which it exist changes (remember change is the certainty, NOT a circumstance).

    Also, family exists beyond children and husbands. It includes natural family members, as well as friends who have become family. So, if one takes a step back, the scope of vision increases. As such, one's scope of perspective broadens to offer additional realisms and choices.

    One of those choices is: I am my sisters' and brothers' keeper. My point: the discussion is discounted if we don't broaden our perspective to include all loving relationships. If one has been wise, one has engaged life and living to include nurturing loving, trusting, healthy and reliable relationships beyond our children and husbands; not the exclusion of them, but to the inclusion of them all.

    So it is okay to broaden our perspectives and our realisms to include various, valid and healthy scenarios.

    Have a blessed Sunday!

    DA Collins

  8. Anonymous says:

    HUGE problem with your argument there. All your points are 'ifs', meaning they might happen, or might not. And each thing can be countered, e.g. a husband who is not capable of providing care can learn.

    So if this lady has a run of bad luck, she might not have anyone to care for her in old age. On the other hand, if you stay single you definitely won't have anyone to care for you.
    Some is better than none.

  9. Onely says:

    Oh wow, sorry you had that experience. It seems like such a classic example of singlism. Good for you for reeducating (hm that is a loaded word) her. Or trying to. = )

    Someone I was talking to once asked me if I had kids, and I said no, and she said “oh, not yet!” But I did not engage her because the environment was not right (and I was chicken).
    CC

  10. Smokie says:

    Really. The conversation took a “too personal” tone when the Lady asked, “Who's going to take care of you when you're old?” Who asks a stranger something like that??? Who CARES? I mean, it's none of her business. In Texas, the convo would have went like this:

    You: She's adorable.
    Lady: Thank you.
    You: How old is she?
    Lady: 2
    PAUSE
    Lady: Do you have any kids?
    You: No.
    Lady: Oh,lucky you/nothing wrong with that/something equally non offending.

    Geez.

  11. bikegirl says:

    “Maybe I gave her something to think about.”

    Parents rarely think about these things.
    As you pointed out – having kids is no guarantee that they'll be able or willing to take care of you when you're older. I know that when my mother gets older and needs someone to take care of her, my sisters will expect me to take her in because I'm the only one who doesn't have kids, but that's not going to happen. She made me feel worthless my whole life, and I'm not going to have her live with me and have to put up with her abuse.

    Also, having a kid just so they'll be your nurse maid when you get old is incredibly selfish. Why don't parents ever think of that?
    Being born with a job like that already lined up for you must suck. Maybe the kid wants to live their own life. Maybe they won't be able to handle having to clean up when their mother/father poops in their pants and can't clean it themselves. (It's a lot different than changing a baby's diaper, which is the excuse parents often use: “I did it for them, so they can do it for me.” Selfish). Maybe they'll die before their parents. Maybe they'll be broke. There are absolutely no guarantees in life. Depending on your kids to take care of you when you get old is like depending on winning the lottery for your retirement savings.

  12. eleanore says:

    @Smokie: Really? I don't know if that's a good thing or not. (I live in NYC)

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hello, this post is so relevant and I commend you for letting the woman know. Similar to “who will take care of you when your old?” I tell young women that you better have a way to financially support yourself, no matter how rich the guy is, because in life there are several scenarios: 1) you stay together and are happy 2) you divorce 4) He gets disabled and can't work so now you're responsible for the bills and have to take care of him 5) He dies
    So out of 5 scenarios, only one is safe. Kind of scary, but true.

  14. Smokie says:

    I don't recall where you live, but in Texas such a personal conversation would never take place between strangers. I mean NEVER.

  15. Jamila says:

    I can see the old lady's point and I can see yours also. As more and more people don't have kids or get married, and all these same people start expecting to be taken care of by “someone, somewhere, who loves them,” I have to question where are all these “someone's” going to come from?

    On the other hand, for those who don't want kids or a husband there is nothing wrong with making that choice.

  16. Rhona says:

    I love it!! I have commented on this before but I work pt at a nursing home and let me tell you, people with kids are not always visited or cared for. I met a woman last week who had 8 kids because she was an only child and none, not one, of her kids take the time to visit her. Also, I like the point of relationships with kids changing. I know a woman who had a great relationship with her father only things soured about 5 yrs ago or so. Now, she doesnt visit him or care about him. He will be alone in a nursing home.
    Also, statistically women outlive men so why would that woman think her husband would take care of her? stas wise, she will be around longer than him. I see more women in nursing homes than i do men. thats just a fact. i am sure you gave that woman on the train something to think about, that is for sure.

  17. nurselady says:

    totally agree… no guarantee at all that an elderly husband or your children would be interested in caring for you in old age! Better to plan ahead now, and buy yourself a long term care policy that will cover a nursing home!

  18. Dakota says:

    Would you please get out of my head?? It's freaking me out! =)

  19. C says:

    You nailed every point dead on. It's selfish to have children so one can be cared for in old age. After all children don't ask to be born and should not be made to feel obligated to care for parents who chose to have them. I work in healthcare and let me tell nothing tests the bonds of a marriage/relationship than having to take care of your spouse when he/she becomes ill. I have watched so many husbands/wives believe that their significant other and children will provide love/care when illness sets and long term care is required. I have listened to significant others complain about having to give up their retirement years to care for an ailing spouse. I've even spouses walk away from an ailing husband/wife because they can't deal with the stress of long-term care. I listen to significant others flat out say they are not capable of taking care of their spouses because they are ailing as well. I listen to children who travel from distances complain that they are not able to leave behind their jobs and lives in other states to care for ailing parents. I have even witnessed family members fight one another over paying the expense of their parents' care. It does not matter how much you plan for your future you can't predict the hand you will be dealt. People who continue to ask this question to singles really need to wake up and ask themselves “how have I prepared to take care of myself in the event I find myself widowed, divorced or without support from my kids?” People who ask this question – please stop believing that life is actually a Walt Disney movie. Real life happy endings are not guaranteed no matter how much we prepare for them.

  20. eleanore says:

    @Thea: Thanks so much for your support. I'm glad you found the blog and I look forward to you joining in on the conversation. Welcome!

  21. Trixie says:

    Well, you could count on some nice lady in the building.

    Favorite line: Your husband just might not be emotionally equipped to care for you.

  22. Thea says:

    Hi Eleanore
    It's my first time here, so hello to you! I just bought your book and am enjoying reading through it. I am single, 46 and definitely don't want to have kids. I totally agree with your conversation with the lady on the train. I know quite a few people who got married and had children but no one was there for them when they got sick/old. Being married is no guarantee you will have someone to take care of you. With kids like you mentioned so many of them move and travel nowadays, there is no guarantee they will be living in the same state let alone country as their parents when they get older.
    I am really looking forward to reading more of your blog. I have been looking for something like this for a long time. I always knew I wasn't alone on the not wanting kids thing but sometimes it can be hard to find people on the same wavelength.
    I look forward to reading more of your posts.
    Cheers
    Thea

  23. Lorelai says:

    HAHA! I love it!! A lot of married women drive me crazy in their attempt to convince me to marry as well. The married-with-children women of the world need to hear this message much more often. I'm happy you told your side of the story. Even if she never gets it.

  24. Joy says:

    Hi . I have always thought the same thing.Having taken care of a dying relative in my home recently who had 5 children with me being the only one who assumed care defined that even more. There is no certainty in life .I have 1 adult child who will never be able nor would I want caring for me as they can just barely care for their selves and they are not good with crisis.And I know and believe most of the time we have to live it as fully as we can.
    I also have my own thinking about funerals but will save that for when you address it.

  25. mml says:

    You are awesome. And so right. I wish more people would recognize the reality of life rather than believing life is a fairy tale as long as your married with kids.

  26. D Collins says:

    E,

    Weirdly enough your words, everyone of them, probably landed in her ears in such a way that her neatly ordered future was juxtaposed with reality. The audacity of your words affronted her self-indulged version for her life that does not include branches into “real life differences”. Of course, those “Sunnybrook Farm” branches of fairy tale “unfoldings” are the ones all wish for our loved ones and ourselves. Ultimately, you gave her wisdom upon which she will be able to reflect the rest of her life. True, she may, in fact, have her Sunnybrook Farm version of life, but she learned yesterday that there are other outcomes that are equally valid and they will come in the context of the lives of someone in her family or friends. She also learned that there are other idyllic “locations” in the geography of life.

    You did good thing yesterday, albeit not immediately apparent. It was a hard truth that she needed, as she will be required at some point to love people in her life (or her very own life) whose lives take on a different Sunnybrook Farm landscape than the myopic one she envisions and projects to the rest of the world.

    The train ride back should be so fruitful!

    Happy Weekend,
    DA Collins

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