What are the most significant concerns for adult onlies? – Aging and dying parents.

by on April 22, 2011

in Bernice's Research


Mother and daughter

I have noticed that many adult onlies write emails about the difficulties of managing elderly parents. It is often harder to cope with – when you are the only one. Part of this is the responsibility of care, both emotional and physical, but there is also the realisation of how becoming an orphan will affect us, when our parents die.

My own research and a piece of research undertaken in the US by Roberts and White Blanton (2001) concluded that ‘aging parents was the main concern for the young adults interviewed.’  They were also anxious about outliving their parents, and appear to feel a ‘lack of lifespan continuity’. What this means, is the sense that many of us have after our parents’ die that there is no one left to be a witness to our lives. (Sibling adults only experience this later in life if they are the remaining live sibling.).

From emails sent to me it is clear the close relationship onlies have with their parents, particularly if there is a lack of separation, can cause a level of emptiness when parents die that appears to be much greater, when there are no siblings to share this with. This is aptly summarized here:

Without my parents – I have no one – what can I do? – I realise that I will bury my parents and it does my “head in’ worrying about who will bury me. I have no one. I am also terrified about old age – the vulnerability of the aged without someone to look after them. Will I be some lonely old lady without anyone to make sure they take care of me in the nursing home. Will I have enough to live on in this age of governments withdrawing from social security. Will I die in my house and no one will know for days or weeks? – I am so, so frightened. And so lonely.”

This email gives a very poignant sense of the child who is completely lost without a parent. As a psychotherapist experienced in dealing with anxiety – I was taken by surprise by how much my own anxiety increased after the death of both my parents’. After my mother’s death my father’s anxiety was high and I think I became so used to dealing with that I had not expected a similar level of anxiety would happen to me. However 15 years on I am noticing that sense of being alone in the world, an orphan is still strong. This phenomena of aloneness appears, from interviews and emails, quite common with only child adults, exacerbated if they have no partners or children

Staying close

Why is this? Roberts and White Blanton’s research demonstrated that when their participants were asked about the relationship they had with their parents’, the majority of onlies said they were grateful for the close bond they had with their parents, often seeing them as ‘friends’ and spending more time with them than their own friends who had siblings. However this sometimes felt pressurised and the undivided attention they had received from their parents was believed by them to have negatively affected their development as adults. This was evidenced by their need to control, both people and situations. Others felt they lacked life skills because they had not been given enough responsibility for themselves. As one of my co –researcher’s said:

“I had no sense of myself as separate from my parents, so when they died I did not know who I was. It was if they were a part of me – so when they died a part of me died too.”

Whilst I do not think a lack of sense of self is necessarily true for all adult onlies my own research has shown that it is not uncommon. However I do believe that the only child who has been unable to separate psychologically from their parents is far more likely to experience this sense of desolation. Similarly an over protective style of parenting inhibits a child’s development into adulthood. They do not gain ownership of their lives or a sense of their own autonomy as individuals. This may lead to a sense of dread at the thought of the death of a parent because as we saw above: ‘when they died a part of me died too’. When a parent dies a great void emerges and that coupled with a sense of aloneness from childhood can develop into high levels of anxiety.

  • http://integratingfeelings.blogspot.com/ Mia

    I love your blog!

    • Bernice

      Many thanks Mia- please feel free to write your own thoughts or comments

  • anon

    As a only child with no partner or children, who is very close to their parents, that is my absolute worst fear….them dying! I feel I won’t be able to cope without them. I am 44 and they are in their 80′s, so the reality is now hittiing in very hard, and I find myself extremely anxious about what the future holds. I feel very alone in this as I don’t know any other onlies who are my age and not in a relationship and haven’t got children

    • Willow215

      Anon… I’m not sure if you’re still visiting this site, but I hope you are.  I’m in a very similar situation that you find yourself in.  I’m an only child with no partner and have no children. I lost my father 10 years ago, very unexpectedly. I was going to live with him for a while since I was going through rough times. On the second morning I woke up at his house, I cleaned the kitchen, made coffee and was looking forward to having yet another great morning conversation with my dad before I moved my things into his house. I went to check on him and was horrified to find that he was blue, cold, eyes open seemingly looking at me…and he was dead. 10 years later and I still remember and feel that moment and day as if it were yesterday! Since that time I lost my career as a nurse due to chronic pain health conditions, had to go on Disability b/c of pain and depression, lost my apartment, fiancee, friends, and had to move back in with my mom and stepdad.  I have a LOT of anxiety, panic attacks, and now I’ve fallen into the role of being the sole caretaker for my mom and s-dad, who are both in very poor health, esp. my mom. I have NO friends to call. I cannot bring any potential new female friends into their house b/c my s-dad is verbally/emotionally sexually inappropriate to any woman. I can’t date because my mom and s-dad don’t like company and I have nowhere to have any privacy at all. I feel hopeless. My mom and I have always been very close, although my mom has always been very critical of me. I’m not physically or emotionally well enough to be the caretaker, but have no choice since I am thee only child. I’m not handling this well at all.

      • LJ

        Willow, your post bring tears to my eyes – do you at least have an online friend?  Did posting your angst bring you any relief? If it helps please know that I can identify with you – you’re not the only one who feels this strain.  May the peace of God be with you!

      • Cojoba

        Just saw your post, and I am so sorry to hear that Willow.  I don’t know what to say except I truly empathise with how you must feel.

      • K-anon

        Aw, Willow. I hope you can find some support online, or at least find a therapist to start talking out some of these stressors.  It could be very helpful in the long run.  I feel your pain and hope you can find some glimmer of light out of your situation.  Hugs!

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/MS5PKPHDYFV5Y6WMNTKQG7QFSI Brandy Barbarossa

        Ignore the Brandy name part…I too am only beginning to understand what you are & have been going through. I lost my Father a few days ago, prior to that I have been  in & out of hospital since last July with Acitis and Hepititus B. my father I have not seenin years & with no siblings or other family in Canada I was pretty much I my own with my Mom supporting me where she could, we have constant conflict from time to time. Came December, I was admitted into hospital again in Toronto for tests to find the problems. 5 days had turned to 7 weeks requiring 2-Open Heart Surgerys & a Pacemaker. Barely having any visitors for the duration I spent Christmas & New Years in hospital with nothing being given and also came out of Surgery with no one waiting there. I was finally released Jan.30th to find my own way home, allot of overdue Bills and then having my Dad die that Sunday. I found out all of this this morning & I’m still holding composure for now. The Corperation,Blue-Cross and my Union have not given a Damn up to to this point in any Regards to anything, of being off work since last year.At this point all I can do nurse myself back to a decent health and then take life by the Reins and Hope for the Best. Right at this moment my outlook is very dim & bleek, but somehow I will have to Survive…Surely not much more could possibly happen at this point, but,cursets will dictate that fate?…..Thanks for listening ~PETER~ Bless this Life!!

    • LJ

      I feel your angst – I identify !

    • Linda de Jong

      Oh wow, I’m so feeling this way myself. I just moved out because a part of me feels they’ve really held me back from finding a partner and starting a family of my own (they’ve always been overly controlling and jealous when I had significant others in my life, my mother bordering on abusive.) So, I just wanted to put a little distance between me and my parent’s increasing needs as elders so I could have the time and the space to develop some kind of relationship. At the same time, they’ve really been the only ones around for me in their imperfect way. My anxiety levels astound me. And I know I’ve been experiencing anticipatory grief too – mother is in quite poor health and dad is in his 80s.
      In many ways they weren’t there for me emotionally growing up, now it’s like they’re edging towards being incapable of it. The fact is they’re scared too about their future. And we’ve never been able to talk about these things. My father changes the subject, my mother gets irrational. They both just tune out.
      Well, it’s small comfort to know I’m not the only only dealing with this.

    • purealchemy

      I am one who has your situation. I am about to turn 59 and was a little older than you when my parents died both in their mid 80s. Losing them was the worst thing that will ever happen to me and I had a lot of anxiety during what I knew would be their last years.

      • JR Much

        I would love to get some insight from you. My name is JR. Please text me at+12065523340

        • purealchemy

          It is easier for me to do email.

  • K-anon

    This post is right on.  I am a middle-aged only adult with aging parents, no partner nor children, and mounting health problems.  It’s always been my biggest fear and now that my parents are in their 70s and 80s it’s just getting worse.  What’s going to happen to me when they die?  I’ll have no one and no history.  

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/OVZ23QEOYSBYUZT2V7PD5O2DMM Chris

    I am an adult only child aged 54 and since losing my father and mother I have been completely alone in the world, as I am not married and have no children. This is not the life I would have wanted for myself. I feel lonely all the time, that I don’t matter to anyone. I go out socially and have friends but they are not a real subsitute for family. They have their own lives and I am not a priority to them. I am at high risk of getting glaucoma and am terrified of being elderly, blind and alone. I still hope to meet someone to settle down with and I go on dates through net dating sites, but I would not really want someone in my situation as we would only have each other.  

    • susan

      I can so relate with what you wrote. The holidays, too, are so hard. I hope you’re doing okay.

    • Marcia

      I am an only child and now carer for my mum who is legally blind and has been for about 20 years. I chose not to pursue the lift I would have liked, to marry and have children, when I found out that I had a 50% chance of going blind myself and also a 50% chance of passing the condition onto a child.

      It is damn tough a lot of the time. But what I recommend if you are truly scared of blindness, is go and find your local vision impairment society and see if there is anything you can do to help anyone who is blind, and or at a retirement village if anyone there you can help.Sometimes there are even things you can do from home to help, if it is difficult to find time to go elsewhere which can be a big issue as a carer. Seriously, the best part is you realise that helping someone like this shows you that some of what you fear is not quite as bad as you thought, and also helping other people genuinely helps you feel better too.

      I am not just saying it, I have done it myself. And I am soooooo much happier for it even though I still find my solo caregiving role tough.

      Good luck!

  • Julie

    I was an only child. I was very close to my mum, and never wanted to be away from her for long. I didn’t really miss having siblings: with only one exception, my parents, both of whom came from large families didn’t keep close contact with theirs. I was lucky in that I make friends and keep them. Thank goodness for that.
    I spent a decade looking after Mum and Dad when their health declined. I fought to keep Dad alive when the NHS were trying to write him off. I moved us to a double new build house with a connecting door, and for five years I was a night nurse, while working full time as a teacher.

    Now I am on my own. I never married and have no full time partner (although some of those good friends are male). I have no children. My big fear is retirement – I need to be with other people. If I have advice it is this: middle aged on lies need friends. Don’t neglect those letters or emails. They could be your lifeline

  • purealchemy

    I am a divorced middle-aged only child without children, no spouse or “significant other”. My parents have both been gone for over 10 years. My closest blood relatives are two first cousins I was never close to and three second cousins, one of which I am still very close to. Have been looking over the internet to see if there is a group for people with a like situation but have yet to find one with so many gaps.
    Will try making comments to posts here but most are quite old and not sure if anyone would get back after all this time.

    • LD

      I completely understand. It’s a situation I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

      • purealchemy

        Thanks. Glad to see someone is still participating here!

  • purealchemy

    On a Christmas Eve this resonates:

  • BW

    I worry about this a lot. I am an only child, who is married but without children. I have a nephew-in-law with whom I’m not close. Otherwise I have a few cousins I really don’t know either. I dread being the last one left after my Mom dies and if I survive my husband. At least he has a sister. Guess I’ll be a cat lady, LOL. I can’t even join a church for a social life as I’m agnostic. Maybe I’ll find secular friends after we move to our retirement destination and start over in a few years. I just try to not worry and keep living as full a life as possible with my husband in the present. Maybe I’ll start an online network for lonely old people in my community some day.

  • Alli

    I am an only child! I had a great childhood and was very close to both my parents. I lost my dad 4 years ago. It was somewhat sudden. He was having stomach pains and confided in me that he was scared, I reached out to his doctor and got him in for a test the next day. They found an aortic aneurysm and admitted him that night. He died in surgery 3 days later. It was a shock for my mother and I. I felt a lot of guilt because I butted in and I felt like he would have been here longer if I had not. My mother fell apart. I had to hold everything together for her and myself. My mom lived alone for 2 years and I convinced her to move in with my husband, daughter and I. She had her own apartment and it was great having her close. She went downhill after my dad passed… kinda gave up. On June 10th, she died unexpectedly. My 11 year old daughter found her. I was working upstairs and she went to check on her. She was frantic and I went down to discover her. This has been so hard… I feel like I am an orphan. In my head I know I have my spouse, daughter, family, and friends. It is my heart that feels so isolated, alone and just heartbroken. I am going to seek out a therapist for me and my daughter. We can’t bring ourselves to go downstairs. We go outside to leave the house. Her clothes are still on the chair. I know I need to start going through things but I can’t.

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