UF Study: Remaining Childless Does Not Lead To Loneliness In Old Age

Published: April 17 2003


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The common belief that remaining childless leads to loneliness or depression in the elderly is contradicted by a new University of Florida study, which instead found similar levels of well-being among parents and people without children in their later years.

At the same time, having children is no guarantee of happiness later in life, said Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, a UF sociology professor who conducted the study.

“For years we have heard warnings that if you don’t have children, you will regret it later,” she said. “But beliefs about childlessness leading to a lonely old age are simply not supported by our study.”

The findings provide evidence that elderly people who never had children are not necessarily more psychologically vulnerable in older age than those with families, said Koropeckyj-Cox, who also is affiliated with UF’s Institute on Aging.

One reason is that some people without children are able to maintain social ties throughout their lives that may substitute for what children would have given them, Koropeckyj-Cox said. They may do this with friends, work relationships or the younger generation, she said.

The survey included more than 3,800 men and women between the ages of 50 and 84 from across the country who were asked how often in the last week they’d felt lonely. The responses of parents were not statistically different than those without children, she said.

The results, published in the November issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family, were based on data from the National Survey of Families and Households, an unusually comprehensive survey about relationships and family life collected in 1988, Koropeckyj-Cox said. People were interviewed not only about their family lives, but also about their attitudes about childlessness and the quality of parents’ relationships with their children, questions that are not included in most surveys, she said.

Koropeckyj-Cox, who conducted the research from 1998-2001, found being a parent did not necessarily lead to well-being in middle and old age. What mattered instead was how parents got along with their adult children, she said.

“For both men and women, the benefits of having children in terms of loneliness and depression came if they had good relationships with their children,” she said. “If they didn’t have a strong relationship, they were more likely to report greater problems.”

In recent decades, sweeping social changes have made people more open to a variety of life patterns, removing some of the stigma once attached to remaining childless, Koropeckyj-Cox believes. “In the 1950s, there was much more pressure to have children, whether it involved pitying people who didn’t have them or criticizing people who chose to remain childless,” she said.

But some attitudes about childlessness linger, and they may be particularly strong among women, she found. Childless women who believed it was better to have a child were much more likely to report being lonely and depressed than their female counterparts who said it didn’t make a difference, she said.

When asked the same question – whether it was better to have a child – childless men showed no difference in rates of loneliness and depression, no matter their answer.

Child-bearing and childlessness are far more pressing issues in the lives of women than men, said Koropeckyj-Cox, who also analyzed as part of her research a series of taped interviews with older men and women in the Philadelphia area discussing at length how having children or remaining childless affected their lives.

“Childbearing is much more connected to the way women think of themselves and the way women are seen socially by others,” she said. “As a result, many childless women report feeling in a position of having to explain their childless status.”

Other studies have pointed to marital status as a major predictor of well-being for older men, so it is possible that for them, having a wife or partner is more important than having children, she said.

“Koropeckyj-Cox’s findings are important for a number of reasons,” said Mark D. Hayward, director of the Social Science Research Institute and a sociology and demography professor at Pennsylvania State University. “The growing number of persons who will be entering old age without offspring does not necessarily signal a decline in the psychological well-being of the population. Quality family relationships, rather than simply having a child, are important for lessening elderly persons’ vulnerability to loneliness.”

The Philadelphia interviews Koropeckyj-Cox studied reflected a broad range of answers about the factors leading people to remain childless and the effects on their lives. Among them were those who never cared for the idea of becoming parents, and those who intended to when they were young but were unsuccessful, she said.

“Some people throughout their lives held onto the idea they were disadvantaged,” she said. “They continued to feel left out of something that was important to them. But other infertile men and women adjusted to their childless status and voiced no regret.”


Cathy Keen
Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, tkcox@soc.ufl.edu, 352-392-0251 ext. 251