Childless elderly, unmarried men more at risk of loneliness
University Park, Pa. - Elderly unmarried men who are childless suffer significantly higher rates of loneliness and depression than elderly unmarried women, according to two Penn State researchers.
"In our study, the lack of biological children per se did not significantly increase the incidence of loneliness and depression at advanced ages," says Zhenmei Zhang, a doctoral student in sociology at Penn State. "Marital status, rather than parental status, is a more salient factor influencing loneliness and depression in old age.
"Compared to women, men, on the whole, have much smaller social support networks outside of the immediate family, a circumstance that may be worsened by childlessness combined with being unmarried," Zhang adds.
Zhang is the lead author of the paper, "Childlessness and the Psychological Well-Being of Older Persons," which appeared recently in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences. Her co-author is Mark D. Hayward, professor of sociology and demography and director of the University's Social Science Research Institute and the Population Research Institute. The researchers took their data from the first wave (1993) of the Asset and Health Dynamics Among the Oldest Old (AHEAD), with a nationally representative sample of community-dwelling persons aged 70 years and older. The first sample used in analysis included 4,081 women and 2,436 men. This group consisted of married, divorced, widowed and never married persons who furnished complete demographic and health information. "Although parental status was not statistically associated with psychological well-being, marriage appears to bring substantial psychological benefits. Married persons had lower rates of loneliness and depression compared with all other marital groups," Hayward says. The study differentiated biologically childless people according to the presence or absence of stepchildren. "Our study shows that a sizable percentage of biologically childless men and women had stepchildren and stepparents were similar to biological parents in many aspects, including psychological well-being," Zhang notes. "The fact that stepparents' psychological well-being is similar to that of biological parents suggests that biological ties between parents and children may be less important than family ties."
Among the elderly, higher levels of education, better physical health and more economic resources help considerably to reduce the odds of loneliness and depression, the Penn State researchers say.
This research was supported in part by grants from the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Child Health and Development.