What are ‘kinless seniors’ and how can they be helped? | Opinion

What are ‘kinless seniors’ and how can they be helped? | Opinion

In an attempt to outrun the clock (the biological one), two women made the decision to freeze their eggs and then chronicle the journey on a podcast entitled “Race to 35.”

In a recent episode, they spoke with Chelsea Handler, an actress who has taken the child-free path and spoke proudly about being “untethered.”

Handler proclaimed, “For anyone who’s listening who’s on the fence or who doesn’t think that they want children and they feel shame or they feel ‘What is my purpose? Is this a full life?’ I’m here to tell you it is a full life. I’ve had the most exciting time of my life repeatedly over and over and over again because of my untetheredness.”

She went on: “I’m not tethered to anything, I don’t have that sense of responsibility. I have a sense of responsibility to a vast array of other things in my life, but I don’t have anything that is keeping me in one place at one time. There is a whole world out there of interests and passions and adventure, and if you’re a person like me who has a real zest for that, and a real passion to see as much, and meet as many people as possible, you’re not doing a disservice to the world by not procreating; quite the opposite.” 

It’s a perfectly acceptable choice to decide that parenthood is not for you, but it’s absurd and insulting to suggest, as Handler did, that those having children cease to have passion and adventure in their lives, that a life that’s worth living ends at the moment of procreation. 

Handler’s description of her choice to remain child-free reminded me of a poignant scene in the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally,” when Sally told a friend why she split with a former boyfriend:

“We wanted to live together, but we didn’t want to get married because every time anyone we knew got married, it ruined their relationship. … Joe and I used to talk about it, and we’d say we were so lucky we have this wonderful relationship. … We can fly off to Rome on a moment’s notice.

“And then one day I was taking (my friend) Alice’s little girl for the afternoon because I’d promised to take her to the circus, and we were in the cab playing “I Spy” — I spy a mailbox, I spy a lamp-post — and she looked out the window and she saw this man and this woman with these two little kids. And the man had one of the little kids on his shoulders, and she said, “I spy a family.” And I started to cry. … And I went home, and I said, “The thing is, Joe, we never do fly off to Rome on a moment’s notice.”

The lifestyle that Handler is advocating is one she can enjoy because of her privilege as a rich celebrity; it’s not an experience the average American woman can reasonably expect. The reality of a single and childless life for American women — and men — is much darker, especially as one ages. 

In a new study released by the Institute of Family Studies, the data bears this out, even among women who are still of childbearing age. Researchers found that among married mothers between the ages of 18-34, 30% report feeling “very happy,” whereas that number drops to just 7% for the women Handler describes as “untethered” — those without a spouse or children. For those over the age of 55, 25% of married mothers report feeling “very happy,” but only 10% of their unmarried and childless peers report feeling the same. 

Recently The New York Times chronicled the rise and plight of people known as “kinless seniors” — those without partners or spouses, children or siblings. In America, they number at least one million and their ranks are growing with smaller family sizes and lower rates of marriage. The Times spoke to one such woman, Lynne Ingersoll, and opened with the scene of Ingersoll and her cat, Jesse, who spent a quiet Thanksgiving Day together in her small bungalow in Blue Island, Illinois. She told the reporter, “My social life consists of doctors and store clerks — that’s a joke, but it’s pretty much true.” 

The Times advocated government and social safety nets for these individuals as they age, acknowledging that relying on friends and neighbors only gets you so far and two-thirds of older Americans will eventually need help with basic activities such as bathing and dressing.

“Friends and neighbors may help with meals or pick up a prescription, but they’re not going to help you in the shower,” Rachel Margolis, a sociologist at the University of Western Ontario, told The Times.

To be fair, many older Americans are happily living alone in the senior years (and the decades that preceded them). And people can wind up alone later in life even if they at one time had siblings, a spouse and children.

But the report doesn’t admit the obvious: that no amount of money, either governmental or personal, can replace the care and love of a family; that no government program or special initiative can take the place of a devoted spouse, child or sibling. Instead of trying to promote such programs, we should instead be promoting initiatives that ensure that more Americans don’t find themselves becoming “kinless seniors” in the first place.

For celebrities like Handler, there will likely be a nest egg to cushion their final years, but even the gift of celebrity and wealth does not guarantee one’s end-of-life experience will go smoothly. That said, having wealth or immediate family certainly improves one’s odds of weathering the final years with comfort and dignity.

Unfortunately, those are two things that millions of Americans will not have when the rubber meets the road in a few decades’ time. And when that time comes, the final verdict on a life committed to untetheredness will be fully realized.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”