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We tend to associate Christmas with family. But what about older people who live
on their own and don’t have children or
other family members?
Lorraine Harding looks into the issues and meets two women who are doing something about it.
By Lorraine Harding
“Christmas is family time. You want to be with your family at Christmas, don’t you?” These are widely shared views about Christmas, views we hear regularly from friends and colleagues. While the run-up to the festive season is usually a sociable time outside the family - almost any organisation you belong to is likely to put on a Christmas ‘do’ of some kind - when we reach Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and the days following, the door of the family is likely to remain closed. It isn’t necessarily what everyone wants or enjoys, but it is a very powerful cultural expectation, a sense of obligation to our ‘nearest and dearest’. So, what about those older people who don’t have any family, who risk being left out in the cold at Christmas?
I spoke to Jean Basson and Monica Stewart, who lead a group called Ageing Without Children (AWOC) in Leeds. I already knew Jean and Monica because like them I am an older person without children and a member of the group.
I asked first how AWOC was set up. Jean recalled that Kirsty Woodard (who had been involved professionally, and had no children herself) had started the organisation in London several years ago. Jean read about it in a newspaper and, with others, formed the Leeds AWOC group in 2014. “At the time I was a carer for my mother and hence very aware of the issues,” said Jean. “I came across the article by chance; it was a bit of a light bulb!” She got in touch with Kirsty, who came up to Leeds. Monica also became involved at that time, along with people from Sheffield and York, and a network of local groups was set up.
While the title is ‘Without Children’, the key point is being ‘without family support’. Some childless people do have support, from nieces and nephews for example. While AWOC is open to them, it’s recognised that the real need is felt by those who lack any family who can help them, for whatever reason. So: older people whose children are living at a distance; or who are estranged; or who predeceased them; or who are themselves vulnerable, for example because of disability. All these are also eligible to join.
She’d seen an event
advertised ‘for grannies’!
Not all older women have grandchildren
Practical and emotional
There are specific problems older people without children or family support face. Jean explained that these could be usefully classified into the practical and the social or emotional. On the practical side, there is a need not only for everyday support but for advocacy. “The key one for me is advocacy,” said Jean. “Who will speak for me when I can’t personally navigate the system by myself?” She refers to the ‘bureaucracy of care’, which can be daunting.
Monica spoke of the problem of not having an emergency contact or next -of-kin. She looked after her husband when he was ill. After he died Monica realised she was on her own. “When somebody asks for a next-of-kin or an emergency contact, there’s nobody to put down on the form,” Monica explained. “It’s quite embarrassing.”
Power of attorney is also a problematic area. “Everybody told me: Get your power of attorney done!” Monica said. “Great! But who is my power of attorney? I haven’t got anybody. Any relatives I’ve got, who are all at a distance, are all my age or older.”
On the social and emotional side, Jean spoke movingly of being an ‘outsider’, and not a priority or key person in anyone’s life. “Families take precedence at all times,” she said. “If family issues came first, naturally I know where the pecking order is.”
The advent of grandchildren exacerbates this focusing on one’s family. These difficulties link with the social stereotyping of older people as a homogeneous group; the preconceived ideas that many people have. Jean mentioned an event she’d seen that was advertised ‘for grannies’! Not all older women have grandchildren – and some don’t have any family members.
Another concern for Jean and Monica is ‘legacy’. At a basic level, who is going to inherit our family photographs? More broadly - who will remember us and our contribution? What ‘legacy’ can we leave when it seems we will never be part of anyone’s family story? Within our own lifetimes, the concern is that if we develop dementia, there will be no younger relative around who really knows the person that we were or can tell our story. Jean said, “The whole business of your life and what it amounted to, often, is defined through the next generation.”
I asked Jean and Monica to elaborate on the activities that AWOC has organised. Before the pandemic, there were live meetings focusing on various topics: Who will speak for me?; Power of Attorney; Discharge from hospital; Housing options; and Making a will. Talks were delivered free by speakers, including solicitors, who were often keen to attend. AWOC is a member of Leeds Older Peoples’ Forum and has been pleased to find representatives of various agencies attending AWOC meetings. More recently, sessions have been held online via a Facebook page, which can also provide a base for information and discussion. AWOC also played a part in the recent Age Proud Festival in Leeds in September 2021. AWOC is open to the possibility of small social support groups, and one has recently been set up in North Leeds.
“We decided quite early on that our main focus would be information-giving and sharing,” said Jean. That is, with people without family, but also agencies and services who support people in that situation. It should be stressed that AWOC has no funding and is not a “provider organisation”. This means it does not provide services or specific practical help. It can act as a signpost to services and give information, but primarily it aims to influence the agencies who do provide, and to raise general awareness.
There has been a good response to AWOC, but it could be we are ‘preaching to the converted’. Monica agrees: “I think like a lot of groups, we’ve probably reached the people who are thinking about it already. I think that a large number of the people who come are those who will find ways of managing through the problems.” There are others, however, who haven’t even thought there’s a problem. They may face worse difficulties as they age. Monica mentioned people in their 90s, who have been single all their life, only now waking up to the fact that being without family is a problem. There’s another issue: do men without children and women without children experience their situation differently? While men are less likely to be without a current partner, there are certainly some single and childless older men who need support, and Monica was glad to report that they were now joining a widows’ group she links with, in greater numbers.
Finally, we came on to the topic of Christmas. We concurred that, while there is plenty of activity for older people without family in the approach to Christmas, between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day there isn’t much happening. “It’s like the country has gone to sleep!” said Monica. Both statutory and voluntary services seem unavailable. Monica and Jea an both reported widespread insensitivity to the situation of people without family at this time. However, it isn’t easy for those who might want to help us older people without children. People may invite us for Christmas, but often one can feel uneasy, like a ‘bystander’ at other people’s family celebration Jean stressed the range of responses found: “From people who are desperately lonely because they’re not included in a family Christmas, to people who’d rather not be!” Monica is usually on duty at church on Christmas Day. People there will talk enthusia- stically about the family Christmas they are about to enjoy. “I get fed up with people saying: I’m going off to family; what are you doing?” Monica thinks to herself, “Don’t you know by now that I don’t have any family?” Monica, Jean and I agreed that people in a more ‘normal’ situation can have real difficulty getting their heads around the idea that someone ‘has no family’. The problem is very individual, though, and some people without family don’t mind working or being on their own on Christmas Day. Their attitude is: “it’s just another day”.
“It’s a bad time for me personally,” said Monica. Her husband was very ill at this time of year. “I really don’t like the ‘Happy Family’ image of Christmas. Sometimes I wonder if we could get away with not having Christmas at all!” A lot of people might agree with Monica, especially if the festive period brings back bad memories. “I just get through it,” she said. Jean’s tactic to get through the season is interesting. “I usually decide to do something practical in the week before that I’ve been putting off for ages,” she said. “Or I go walking locally. I don’t find Christmas traumatic, but I can see that others might.”
I feel Jean and Monica are doing excellent work in running AWOC in Leeds. While currently any formal meetings are held online, we all look forward to resuming live meetings eventually. However, AWOC’s role in raising awareness is probably the key one. We want society to be conscious that not all older people are embedded in a family network - at Christmas, or at any other time. Looking at the numbers, one estimate is that in the UK there are 1.2 million people aged over 65 who have no children. A minority, but still a large number of people, who should not be overlooked.
To conclude on a festive note: the position is varied. Some people may find a substitute family in friends and neighbours; some may be content to be alone. Personally, I have not had to spend Christmas Day or Boxing Day alone, thanks to kind friends - although the week following can be grim. We must look at the individual, that includes thinking about how they feel about Christmas and what they like to do at that time. But finally, a plea. Let’s not make assumptions that everyone is in the same situation. And let’s avoid casually asking anyone we meet: “Will you be spending Christmas with family?”
For more info on AWOC see www.awwoc.org
Many older people won’t see anyone on Christmas Day. Aireborough Voluntary Services to the Elderly (AVSED) is doing something about it! Sharon Denton volunteered to be part of the AVSED Christmas scheme last year:
"I’ve volunteered at AVSED since I retired 2 or 3 years ago. I was a nurse and had to take early retirement. I help to run sessions at AVSED. During the pandemic I’ve done shopping and dog-walking for people who can’t get out.
Last Christmas, the AVESD office put out the call to see if anyone could help. I’m extremely lucky that we always have a big family Christmas lunch, though it depends on who is working and who can be there. It broke my heart to think there could be somebody in my neighbourhood who would be completely alone on Christmas".
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