Ageing alone?

“Ageing alone?” project focuses on the intersection of shrinking kin networks of older adults and the needs for informal caregiving in the rapidly aging population of Finland. It investigates for the first time the population of kinless older adults in Finland and also compares Swedish and Finnish speaking older adults.

For most of human history, older adults have been part of dense family groups. Demographers project that the number of living kin for individuals will decline dramatically worldwide. Family networks are also expected to age considerably as the age gap between generations widens due to later fertility and longer lifespans. These changes suggest a stark contrast in the pool of family members that contemporary older adults might rely on for social support when compared with same-age groups in prior cohorts. As the projected number of older adults with smaller and older family networks increases, there are also more kinless older adults, i.e., without a partner and children. A key question is what can at least partly substitute for the love and care family members would earlier have provided.

In general, older adults face a higher risk of being socially excluded due to age-related changes and older adults from minority groups are particularly vulnerable. Unlike most minorities in the world, Swedish-speaking Finns are fully integrated and appear to live in more cohesive communities with a larger social capital compared to Finnish-speaking communities. Additionally, Swedish speakers in Finland have lower divorce and separation rates, and, since the 1980s, more children than Finnish-speakers. This difference between two linguistic groups makes Finland an interesting testbed for research on kinless older adults and the potential of other network members to compensate for absent children and a partner.

Who are kinless older adults? Older people without the core family members—i.e., a partner and children, who are the main and most reliable providers of care in later life—are usually considered kinless (Verdery et al., 2019).

Why do we need research about this group? Kinless older adults may be an extremely disadvantaged group with increased needs. Estimating the prevalence of this group, their characteristics, and geographic allocation is crucial for planning future formal care needs and effective distribution of the welfare resources in Finland—one of the global leaders in population ageing. There could be profound differences between Swedish and Finnish speakers both in the proportions of kinless older adults and in the potentials of their networks to compensate for the absent partner and children. Researchers and policymakers can learn a lot from these differences.

The project addresses four objectives:

  1. estimating the prevalence of kinless older adults in Finland and among two linguistic groups,
  2. clarifying their socio-demographic characteristics,
  3. mapping their geographic distribution over the country with a focus on bilingual municipalities,
  4. exploring the potential of other family members and friends to substitute a partner and adult children in caregiving.

The research is based on the GENTRANS data collected in 2018 and population register data.

Project is funded by the Alli Paasikivi Foundation and the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland.

More information

Alyona Artamonova, project researcher