You are here


The Evolving Family

Ageing without children
Copyright: Cathy Yeulet

In recent years, the number of ageing adults in societies has increased significantly. At the same time, even countries with generous social support systems have begun shifting care obligations away from the state, emphasizing the need for individual responsibility. The idea falls under the assumption that adult children will step in as the need for care arises. But what does this mean for individuals who, either voluntarily or involuntarily, do not have children in old age? In a recent article, Katya Ivanova and Pearl Dykstra identify and explore key issues that arise when considering the care needs of aging nonparents.

The authors suggest that if the understanding of who should care for an older individual is restricted to kin (and adult children in particular), this negates the experiences of those without children. In addition, though older adults may be able to rely on other sources for support (neighbours, friends or professionals) the majority of legal provisions across countries tend to emphasise the primacy of immediate family members. For example, in the United States, 12 weeks of unpaid work leave is offered for those seeking to help out only a child, spouse, or parent. Likewise, in many states in the US (for example: California, New Jersey, and Texas) physicians cannot consult anyone but legal family members about the care preferences of their incapacitated patients. These legal provisions make this already demanding job of caretaking almost impossible for those wishing to assist a non-family member during times of need.

The understanding of what “family” is, as well as, how people plan their life courses have transformed dramatically within the past few decades. For this reason, Ivanova and Dykstra argue that it is necessary to move away from a single definition of family when creating policies. Some positive steps forward have been made in recent years, with the notable example of the Netherlands where employees can now take a leave of absence to care for a non-relative. Nonetheless, the authors argue that many more concepts of family need to be considered in order for progress to be made.


*This PopDigest has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 320116 for the research project FamiliesAndSocieties. FamiliesAndSocieties ( has the aim to investigate the diversity of family forms, relationships and life courses in Europe, to assess the compatibility of existing policies with these changes, and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. The consortium brings together 25 leading universities and research institutes in 15 European countries and three transnational civil society organizations.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Jordan Lang and Daniela Vono de Vilhena