Childless look to others in planning for old age

Problem looms as fewer women have children

3/2/2014
NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK — Having children was never on Francine Tint’s to-do list. A painter of large abstract canvases, Tint never felt a biological imperative to reproduce or pass on her name to future generations.

“My paintings are my children,” said Ms. Tint, who is “over 65,” and whose work has been featured in galleries and museums nationwide. But in the back of her brain, one thing slightly nagged at her: Without offspring, on whom could she rely in her old age?

“People don’t have children to take care of them later on in life,” said Ms. Tint, who is divorced and lives in Greenwich Village. “It’s not a reason to have children. But of course, I worry.”

Her situation is one that more and more elderly people will face over the next few decades as fewer women choose to have children.

According to an August, 2013, report from AARP, 11.6 percent of women ages 80 to 84 were childless in 2010. By 2030, the number will reach 16 percent. What’s more, in 2010, the caregiver support ratio was more than seven potential caregivers for every person older than 80. By 2030, that ratio is projected to decline to 4 to 1. By 2050, it’s expected to fall to 3 to 1.

Unlike China, whose Law of Protection of Rights and Interests of Elderly People requires children of parents older than 60 to visit their parents “often” and tend to their financial and spiritual needs, the United States has no such law.

The trend means that “there are going to be far fewer of the traditional caregivers,” said Donald Redfoot, a co-author of the study and a senior policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute in Washington. “It raises the question: Then who?”

“Many people are extending the notion of family itself to nieces and nephews, cousins, and so on,” he said. “But it’s also expanding to ‘pseudo kin’ of friends and neighbors. We see this in the LGBT community, many of whom have been alienated from their families.”

Not only does it raise questions of who will care for them, it also brings up issues of housing arrangements, estate planning, and who to put in charge of financial affairs.

This is something Batya Lewton, 82, a former teacher and librarian in New York who never married and has no children, has been wondering. “You have to think in advance; you can’t assume that people are going to know what you want done for yourself, or how you want to be taken care of, whether you want to stay in your home or not,” she said. “It’s important that people who you care about and who care about you know exactly what you want.”

About eight years ago, Ms. Lewton named two friends who live in her building to oversee her future. Both have power of attorney and are executors of her will. She has filed important papers in marked boxes and given explicit instructions on where she would like to be buried, what she wants engraved on her headstone, and how the funeral should proceed.

Both Ms. Lewton and Ms. Tint hope to stay in their apartments rather than move into a facility. “I know a lot of people in my building,” said Ms. Tint. “It’s like an assisted living center or a dorm,” or, in modern parlance, a naturally occurring retirement community.

Others — both singles and couples without children — are considering cohousing situations with people of all ages.

Bill Strubbe, 58, a writer and painter in San Francisco, with no children, plans in the fall to relocate to a kibbutz outside Haifa, Israel, that he has been visiting since he was 20.

“I’ll be living among a community of people I have known all my adult life and has systems in place for care of the elderly,” he said. “Unlike the U.S.A., Israel has excellent health care for all its citizens, and that will take a big load off of my mind, knowing that I won’t be left flapping in the breeze if something happens to me.”

Dave Littell, a retirement income program director at the American College of Financial Services, in Bryn Mawr, Pa., says children usually provide about 70 percent of long-term care. But they’re not always the best people to make decisions about their parents.

A 2012 study of 975 parents and 152 adult children conducted by Fidelity Investments found that only 3 percent of parents agreed that their children would take care of them if they became ill. The study also found that only 10 percent of children believed conversations about health and eldercare were very detailed.

“While it’s great to have kids who are available to help, there are a lot of complications with having kids around,” said Audrey Chun, a doctor and medical director at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “A lot of the dynamics, decisions that have to be made around the end of life, disagreements that arise between siblings, what mom or dad may have wanted, can be very emotional. Many of my patients without kids are interested in not wasting resources at the end of life — when it’s their time, they don’t want unnecessary suffering, or to be a burden on society. They want to die naturally. Because they don’t have children to advocate for them, they’re much more open and direct about that.”

Those without children also tend to have the resources to pay for professional assistance. As the Agriculture Department reports, a middle-income family with a child born in 2012 can expect to spend about $241,080 ($301,970 adjusted for projected inflation) in expenses for that child over the next 17 years. If that money were saved for 35 years, it would amount to about $1.5 million, with compounding interest, Mr. Littell said.

“You save so much money not having a child, not to mention two or three,” said Joni Evans, the chief executive of WowOWow, a Web site for women, who never wanted children. “And you’re saving millions of dollars when you span it over 20 years. For me, when the time comes I’ll hire someone, or I’ll have a really great friend move in with me. Whatever it takes, I feel like I have the money to take care of myself in my old age.”

Of course, one issue facing the childless is what to do with their estates. Some establish foundations in their name or leave money to charity, said David Nethery, senior vice president for wealth management at Merrill Lynch in Dallas. Others bequeath money to siblings, nieces and nephews, or friends, as Ms. Lewton did.

In Mr. Strubbe’s ideal world, he won’t have any cash left. “Hopefully I will have used it all up,” he said. Should there be any, he said he would most likely leave it to “nieces and nephews and/‚Äčor some of the children of close friends on the kibbutz.”

Among the stipulations, he said, is that recipients not use their inheritance “to pay bills, taxes, rent, or other such mundane things, but to earmark it for taking a trip you could never afford, enrolling in an art class that was not in the budget, or do something meaningful, wild, and fun.”