Sunday, May 9, 2010

Childless and elderly: not as terrifying as you might think

There was an extraordinary headline in the Sydney Morning Herald online today (on Mothers' Day, of all days): Anglicans argue for fewer kids.
The article says, in part:

The Anglican Church wants Australians to have fewer children and has urged the federal government to scrap the baby bonus and cut immigration levels.

The General Synod of the Anglican Church has issued a warning that current rates of population growth are unsustainable and potentially out of step with church doctrine - including the eighth commandment 'thou shall not steal'.

In a significant intervention, the Anglican Public Affairs Commission has also warned concerned Christians that remaining silent "is little different from supporting further overpopulation and ecological degradation".

Wow. You know that things are really changing when (some) Christians start viewing unbridled reproduction as a sin. A sin!

This latest Anglican advice is, sadly, in stark contrast to the Catholic advice which remains, in essence, Go forth and multiply! For example, earlier this year the president of the Vatican bank, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, declared that the true cause of the global economic crisis is the decline in the birth rate.

For the record, I'm an atheist - but I'm more than happy to join with the Anglicans in not remaining silent on the subject of overpopulation. Hence, today I've decided to explain just one of the reasons why I'm very comfortable with my decision not to have children. 

When I mention being childless by choice, one of the first questions most people ask me is: "But ... who will look after you when you're old?".

My answer is: I will look after myself, or (to paraphrase Yossarian) I'll die in the attempt.

 (Incidentally, do people really have children with their own geriatric care in mind? If so, it strikes me as ironic that childless women are so often labelled as selfish - as well as bitter, unnatural, and evil - for not having children. Go figure.)

I was sharply reminded of just how precious good health and physical independence are in 2004, when I spent 15 days in Westmead hospital as a result of shattering my right knee in a motorbike accident, and ending up with a raging infection.

The hospital bed opposite mine was occupied by a frail old lady with a broken arm, and mild dementia. Her name was Philomena. Philomena and I actually shared the same birthday, albeit 52 years apart.

As incredible as this might sound, more than once while she was in hospital, Philomena missed out on meals because there was no one to help her eat them. (Myself and my neighbour, Margaret, would gladly have fed Philomena, if only we'd been physically able to move out of our own beds -- Maragret was under traction with a broken pelvis, thanks to a moron who ran over her while she was cycling in a designated bicycle lane).

Can you imagine? A frail 81 year old lady going without food in an Australian hospital in 2004. (It is pertinent to note that Philomena had a daughter who visited her regularly - but not at meal times).

Margaret and I kicked up a stink, ensuring that, at the very least, someone woke Philomena up at meal times, removed the fiddly seals from her drinks, and cut up her food for her. But even then she ate so laboriously that she often wasn't able to finish her meal before the kitchen staff came and took her plate away.

Looking across the room at that helpless old lady, I decided to make damn sure that I'd take real steps to keep myself fit and healthy into old age. This is one of the reasons that I haul myself out of bed to walk five miles (8km), five mornings a week. (Another reason I do it is because I actually love my morning walk - but it can be hard to remember that at 6:30 on a frosty morning, when I'd much rather go back to sleep).

How to avoid falling over and breaking your arm when you're 81

Some health problems result from sheer bad luck - but, bad luck aside, most people know perfectly well how to become (or remain) relatively fit and healthy. (It's implementing the knowledge that's the hard part).  

For anyone who's hopelessly unfit, balance training can be a really good place to start. The kind of balance skills that can save you from a potentially fatal fall when you're elderly are as simple as "changing direction to walk backward or sideways, changing speed, walking on a plank and stepping over small obstacles". It's really that simple!

Maintaining high levels of bone density is another very good idea for a healthy old age. So, eat calcium-rich foods and do strength training, and weight-bearing exercise. For me, that includes Pilates, push-ups, and my regular morning walk.

Keep your brain healthy by "doing puzzles, reading, writing, and learning new things".

Maintain your cardiovascular fitness with regular aerobic exercise. Once again, brisk walking will do. Digging in the garden is good, too!

I know several obese, chronically-unfit mothers who will be lucky to make it to old age. I know other mothers whose children have died or been permanently disabled in terrible accidents. I know yet others who have become estranged from their adult children for various reasons.

Nobody knows for sure what the future will bring. So why not plan to take care of yourself when you're old, rather than hoping or expecting that your children will be there to do it for you?

And for anyone who might be examining the issue of whether or not to have any children at all: don't let the mothers of the world scare you into reproducing!

Old age doesn't have to be a time of helpless dependence and infirmity - just ask this 76 year old marathon runner:

Image source: Rancho Spenardo


  1. Hahaha, oh Sam you really hit the nail on the head here. I have heard exactly the same arguments, the 'who will look after you when you're old' immediately followed by 'how selfish not to have kids'. What the?

    As for the hospital situation, my partner talked with his mother the other night, to hear that his uncle is in hospital with what they thought was emphysema but they misdiagnosed. This is in the UK, but still. He discharged himself as the nurses were not looking after him (or anybody in his ward). People were bleeding onto the floor as equipment wasn't attached properly, they were defecating and peeing in the bed as nurses couldn't be bothered to help them. How indignified. As for the uncle, due to this misdiagnosis he is now slowly dying - he can't go to hospital because they won't (can't?) look after him, and then the god botherers are still saying that all life is sacred and euthanasia is evil.

    So yes, no kids and keeping fit seems the better option.

  2. Oh ... poor man, to have received such disgraceful treatment. Sadly, part of me is not surprised. When I was in hospital, some of the nurses were nice, some were horrible - most were just indifferent.

    As far as I can see, the lesson is: stay healthy and out of hospital if you possibly can. And maybe buy some Nembutal next time you're in Mexico ... just in case. But don't expect anyone to look after you.