Extended Non-Families, An Alternative for the Aging Childless


People in a variety of situations, and in both developed and underdeveloped countries, are concerned about elder care.  Unfortunately, this is a key force behind the prevalence of large families and the resulting population explosion in underdeveloped countries.  I keep thinking about the news interview I heard recently with a parent in Pakistan (I think it was) who said that the reason they had a large family was so they could be assured that at least a couple of their children would be around to aid them in their old age.  Their assumption was that conditions in Pakistan were not going to get better, and that, between the economic and political problems, they would likely lose at least some of their children to disease or violence before they became old enough to need daily assistance.  Having someone to support you in old age isn’t just an issue in third world countries, however.  Childless individuals and couples in the developed countries have the same concern, and another option is becoming apparent.

Informal, culture-based care systems can aid the elderly.  “Extended non-families” of otherwise unrelated people are already forming to provide elder care in low-birthrate countries.  I know people here in the Midwest of the U.S. who are childless, associate in large part with other childless individuals and couples, and have discussed the value of helping each other out as they get older.  Some groups become informal extended families that have the potential, if not the expressed intent, of providing a proportion of the elder care we will all probably need at some point.  This doesn’t mean full time, live-in nursing care, as the often-unspoken expectation is that the medical and medical insurance systems, for which some are saving or investing as part of their retirement, would handle end of life care.  Instead, it applies to the less-intensive assistance people will need in old age such as help with shopping or gardening. 

World population decreases on the way to sustainability will encourage concepts like this.  The “extended non-family” is a cultural concept that may become widespread as first the post-WWII baby boom and then the global population bubble pass in the next century.  Interestingly, the region where I see this beginning to appear, the Midwest of the United States, is not one with a collectivist nature.  I can only assume it is appearing in other affluent cultures with low birthrates as well.

“Extended non-families” composed of unrelated people are appearing naturally in the developed countries.  In the more affluent countries where birthrates are already low and going lower, childless couples and individuals have more disposable income than those with children.  They tend to spend at least some of their leisure time with others like them, and relationships in adulthood are sustained for many years, often broken only by job-related moves or moving to warmer climates after retirement.  Some retire to a warmer area together and retain their associations.  All of this applies much less to people with children, as they understandably have a lot less leisure time in the first place, and tend to make less social contact with their peers, especially during the child rearing years. 

Cultures in developing and underdeveloped countries with booming populations will need an “extended non-family” concept.  The need for “extended non-families” will be significant as population inevitably declines due to food and energy shortages, among other causes.  Fortunately, some underdeveloped countries already have a cultural tendency towards collectivism that will lend itself directly to the formation of “extended non-families”. 

This and similar concepts can be introduced and promoted now.  Promotion of the concept as part of much-needed family planning assistance in underdeveloped countries could help people adjust.  In many cases it won’t take much change in cultural behavior patterns to make this a more effective support system for the elderly, and institutionalizing the concept as a recognized cultural system will increase its prevalence.

Family planning aid to underdeveloped countries can promote concepts such as “extended non-families” and ease the transition to a sustainable world.  Educational and family planning aid to underdeveloped and developing countries are the most effective (and cost-effective) way to address the global population problem, which is at least as responsible for most global problems as is our inefficient use of technology and culture of mass consumption.  Support for measures to mitigate the population explosion, including that from conservative religious groups and political regimes, is beginning to materialize in the interest of countering the population crisis, but the change needs to be encouraged.

You can make a difference and help achieve sustainability.  The promotion of the “extended non-family” and similar adaptive concepts can be accomplished through both governmental and non-governmental aid.  I encourage you to contact your government representatives and non-government organizations providing international aid, and let them know of your concerns, ideas, and desires.  They will only know what you want if they hear from you, and your support of the appropriate non-profit organizations will be a help in the pursuit of a sustainable world.

As always, I welcome your comments.

interesting Reading:
The Natural History of the Only Child, Feb. 2, 2008, Carl Zimmer, www.wired.com

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