The Single Files: what family means to singletons
Kelly recalls being asked some years ago why he never married. “I said, ‘Sure, who would have me with two children?’ The two children were my mam and dad.”
As a lone carer, he says: “It’s very isolating. I lost my friends, my old workmates. I also lost my social skills.” He says he was fearful at the time of his father’s death that he’d spend the rest of his life alone, but then he and his sister moved in together with her children. Of this extended family, he says, “it’s essential for me”. One of his nieces is now acting as his carer.
Kelly’s experience highlights the vulnerability of some single people. He is now trying to reach out to men in a similar situation in Cork through the Carers Association. “I phone one man every night, and another a couple of days a week. I have a small number of quality friends who were there for me when I was caring,” he says.
Extended family often play a critical role in helping vulnerable older people, according to the charity Alone.
Citing one recent example, chief executive Sean Moynihan says: “I was just heading out the door when the phone rang, and this girl asked, how could she get meals-on-wheels for a distant uncle? Then the story started to unfold, and it turned out he had no electricity and no water.”
The World Health Organisation has rated loneliness as a higher risk to physical and mental health than smoking. And, while Moynihan says some older people will say they prefer to be alone, there is a danger “as people start to disengage, it impacts more and more on their physical and mental health.
“Right now, you might have the arrogance of good health and youth. But when health and youth start to disappear it’s all very different.”
Some of the same concerns about social isolation are shared by lone parents, of which Ireland has a relatively high number by European standards. In 2009, Ireland had the third-highest rate of single motherhood in Europe, after Estonia and the UK.
Single women with children comprised 5.9 per cent of households here, compared to a European average of 3.7 per cent, Eurostat figures show.
A separate study found Ireland had the joint-highest rate of children living with a lone parent. About 23 per cent of children in Ireland and Latvia were raised by single parents in 2008, compared to an EU average of 14 per cent.
Worryingly, from a mental-health perspective, single mothers reported having the highest levels of loneliness, in a 2011 study on attitudes to family formation in Ireland that was commissioned by the Family Support Agency. Single mothers also had the lowest life satisfaction ratings in the survey. The report’s author TCD academic Dr Margret Fine-Davis says a major contributory factor is lack of child care. She did a subsequent study with Fás and discovered women were stopped from bringing their children to training centres “which is a really silly social-policy blockage”.
The lack of affordable child care also makes employment an unrealistic prospect for many single parents, leaving them “isolated in their homes, without any adult companionship”.
Single people with no children would also benefit from improved childcare in the State, she points out. A concern among “high socio-economic status women is that if they start a family they are going to end up working part-time; they realise they are going to have to make career choices. There is very little public childcare and flexible working is more available to women than men.”