After the Middle Adult life-stage, when we are actively involved in generativity – that is helping the next generation either through raising children or contributing to the welfare of future generations in paid or voluntary work – we arrive at Late Adulthood.
(Erikson 1959) sees Late Adulthood as a time when people come to terms with their lives and reassess what they have done or achieved in the light of what they still would like to do. At this stage people are focused towards the latter years of their lives. This life stage is a time that can be particularly difficult for the adult only child who by now often has very little, if any family. This is a time when some people can feel despair. For the adult only child, a sense of despair can be greater if there is no wider social interaction, which can be the case for onlies who have spent a large part of their adult life caring for their own elderly parents.
Linked to this, is the fact that many only-children do not develop a clear sense of themselves until their parents’ die. A woman in their 60’s was beginning to realise that it was not until her parents died that she believed she could have a life of her own. She felt time was running out and although she did not regret giving up many years in order to look after her aged parent’s, she was now faced with old age and no obvious way forward. Now they were gone, she found it was hard to come to terms with what she had lost out in terms of having a family of her own. Caring for elderly parents is particularly challenging for onlies who, as we saw in Middle adulthood, often have strong feelings of responsibility towards their parents’ well being in later life, because there are no siblings to share the burden even in part.
When I interviewed another only child adult, in her 80’s, she was at this stage of re-evaluating her life and realising that despite all her setbacks she had managed to achieve what she wanted in her career, she did not look after her parents, but had sacrificed the possibility of a partnership/marriage at a time when a career could rarely be combined with a family. She was content with this, although she still longed for a sister.
With the loss of both parents, many adult only children feel particularly alone in the world, with no siblings with whom to share memories. Even when they have children of their own, this does not always appear alleviate the isolation they experience. People with no family alive are acutely concerned about their position and isolation, as this email indicates:
I am worried even terrified about old age, being vulnerable, and with no one to look after me. I worry I will be a lonely old lady, living on my own with no one to make sure I am taken care of or helped to go to a nursing home. I wonder whether I will have enough money to live on or who will visit me when I am too old to go out. If I die in my house will anyone know? These things go around in my mind – constantly.
When I began my research I was just 50, now I am in my 60’s, I find this email touches me far more. The first email I ever received was from a pensioner in his 70’s who resonated with the first pieces of research I published on the original onlychild.org.uk site. I find it interesting that it is usually older people (like myself) who find my research most comforting as they have often grown up with a sense of something lacking, but have never linked it to their only-child state. Perhaps this is because being an only child was less common in my generation than it is today, and some people have carried a sense of shame in being an only child as a result of the social stigma they have experienced. At the same time young people clearly resonate with many of the issues I have brought to the fore.
My other website, has a forum for people to discuss only child issues: onlychildadult.com and sometimes raises aspects concerning late adulthood. Interestingly the perspective is often from much younger people. Old age and the final years of one’s life is an issue we all live with, whether we have siblings or not. However I think the aloneness that many adult only children experience brings this into relief much earlier…and perhaps for them it is of greater concern.
However this is not the only story. Those only child adults who have found satisfying relationships and friendships have found late adulthood an enjoyable life experience. For now they are no longer encumbered with looking after elderly parents and perhaps have grown up children, and may even have an ongoing fulfilling active career. For these onlies life can be very full. So many adult only children have told me how important their friendships are and how they have managed to keep friends throughout their life span. This would appear to be the positive side of their lack of siblings. Not having siblings can mean you invest much more time and energy in non family members leading to, in later years, a rich active social life.