Life Stages – Late Adulthood

by on February 18, 2012

in Bernice's Research

Bernice continues her discussion of Life Stages from the perspective of the only-child adult.

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 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: 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.

  • Wd513

    I have achieved 60 years old, never hooked up with someone so never married. As many times as I have tried to explain what it is like to be a single, never married, adult orphan, no one has ever understood what that means.  There is no one who will notice if I am ill, no one to retrieve me if I have an accident, no one for birthdays, mothers or fathers days, or any other holidays and no one to discuss major decisions with.  Yes, once in a while I will hear from someone, but they are rare instances.  It is unbelievable that people think that being inside with a husband  for a day cooking is the same as being really all alone.  I was just trying to remember the last time I got a hug from someone and I can’t remember how long ago that was.  As the saying goes, I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said they will contact me to get together–years pass. Yes, I have tried contacting others, but after a while it gets tiring and ridiculous to always have to be the instigator of all contacts.

    • Gigi3114

      I understand what you comment on.  My heart went out to you by reading this article and comment as it sounds familiar.  I am 45 years old, married with no children.  My parents had me when they were 41 and 45 years old.  I didn’t have any close cousins.  Most of my life and up until this time I have some of the same thoughts and feelings you speak of.  Due to my type of situation, I believe it is preparing me to me strong when I am totally alone.  There are moments now when I need the strength. We all need a hug, to be cared for or wanted, that someone cares about us and we matter.  My father passed away 18 years ago and my mother is 86 in good health and hope she keeps this momentum as she is my last family member. 

      I hope you are doing well and to know someone is thinking about you and cares about what you write.  

  • Trooper

    I have been reading the many posts on this site for quite sometime,and the I am at a loss to understand the number of people who express a need for a sibling and also in their much later years seem to have a fear of having no one.
    I should at this stage perhaps lay out my history.I am of course an only child and pleased to be so. I was born 1930 so I am getting on,I was born into a Miltary family,from 5 to 8 I went to an Army school hich was very strict but good,at eight I was despatched to Boarding school and at ten due to sacrifices made by my parents I went to public school.At Seventeen I went into the Army and had avery sucessful career reaching senior warrent rank.I left the service and enlisted in the Foriegn Legion where I completed ten years of service.I have done well in civilian life, and now in my eighties am enjoying the good life.I am a lifelong batchelor, I am convinced that had I not gone out on my own without parental strings and siblings I could not have achieved  what I have.So rejoice in being an “only” and go do whatever you want to do,the world is your oyster.

    • babs

      Beautiful :) there are lots of siblings out there that rarely call or visit or could have health problems . so what you didn’t have a kid/kids or marry your still here live it . x

  • HelloKittyBabe

    I sit here in tears as I read this article, oddly in joy that I am not alone in my worries. I’m only 30 so I’m still relatively young. my mother passed away four years ago and my father was never present in my life, and I have no siblings. My love life is in the dumps and I have no children. I have dear friends but it scares me to bits to think of the day that will come that they all have families to care for…and I’ll have no one to care for nor care for me. I relate to the statement fully that you truly move into real adulthood when the two people you rely on most for you being who you are aren’t there anymore. I have cried more tears, screamed at more walls, and thought of the unthinkable more times than I would ever be comfortable with admitting. God what is my purpose on this Earth if the life that I have, I have no one to share it with? But I also realize that it’s not for me to know the ending of my life’s story….so I trust and believe that God will provide this old orphan with a family of my own….one day.

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