Analysis: research has found that social stigma related to a solo identity is commonplace in Ireland.

By Eileen Reilly, Beaumont HospitalTrish Hafford-LetchfieldStrathclyde University and Nicky LambertMiddlesex University

The increase in the number of people living and remaining single has been described as one of the greatest social phenomena in Western demography in recent times. Women having fewer or no children, along with a longer life expectancy and an ageing society have altered the course of women’s lives compared to earlier generations.

Demographic trends in Ireland vary from those in the rest of Europe. Historically, Ireland has a distinctive combination of high emigration, high marital fertility, low nuptiality and low non-marital fertility. One consequence of this is that Ireland has a high proportion of women, relative to other western Europe countries, who never married or married late in life and do not have children.

This study of women in Ireland formed part of the Solo Women in Later Life study on the impact of relationship status for women in later life. In-depth qualitative interviews were carried out with 10 women ranging in age from 55 to 87 years of age and living in different parts of Ireland. Voice-relational methodology was used to extract and analyse what the participants said in their interviews. "Solo" was used by the researchers as an alternative to other descriptive terms, such as "single" or "unmarried", which can have a more pejorative association. 

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In Ireland, social stigma related to a solo identity was reported as commonplace. Some examples included feeling excluded in conversations because you don’t have children or grandchildren, being aware of a lower status for older single people in society and feeling that there’s nobody to speak up for single people in the public. There were also complaints of financial inequalities, such as tax breaks for married people and family rates for holidays, gyms etc.

Though there is little written about the Irish experience, international research suggests that the marginalisation of solo people is widespread. Bella dePaulo has argued that it may in fact increase with advancing age, with older singles who never achieved marriage at the bottom.

Despite the negatives, living solo was identified by interviewees as leading to useful life skills and confidence. Some examples were achieving economic independence, taking on tasks usually done by men (such as learning how to do electric repairs, dealing with tradesmen, car mechanics etc.) and buying their own home. Other advantages were "not having to answer" to a partner or others, freedom to "be available" at short notice for social invitations and time for hobbies and volunteering etc. Having time to care for family members was also highly valued. Though this was seen as generally rewarding, some women named some downsides such as social pressure to become carers because of their solo status and financial and career penalties.

There were also complaints about financial inequalities, such as tax breaks for married people and family rates for holidays and gyms

Ageing without a partner or children was viewed as a disadvantage which caused anxiety about the future. Unlike women in other demographics, solo women are not supported by socially sanctioned relationships that create assumptions and obligations to provide care in later life. Our findings suggest that solo women perceived that they had less access to family support which may be the main support in Ireland for future care planning. Existing research suggests that, although solo women are more likely to be providers of care within their families, they receive less kinship support in meeting their own care needs than women (and men) in other demographics.

Some specific worries about the future were coping with cognitive difficulties (like dementia) by yourself, uncertainty about who would help with health problems such as getting to hospital appointments, not being "looked out for" if you were in a nursing home, home maintenance, coping with technology, etc. Directly asking for help was problematic for a few reasons such as wanting to be independent, not wanting to be a burden, not being sure who to ask and hoping that help will not be needed.

Generally, participants did not know about existing services or make links between how health and social care services could help now or in the future. Some women also reported feeling stigmatised in their previous contact with services because of their solo identity. An expectation or fear of being treated in a negative way might also be a deterrent to using health and social care services to plan for the future. 

It is important that health and social care policies and services are aligned to the actual needs of solo women as a unique demographic

As our population ages, it is important to understand how a solo status can have both positive and negative effects in adapting to later life. Anxiety around ageing has been linked to poorer health outcomes and was evident in our sample. Enabling women who are solo to plan for later life may improve health outcomes both now and in the future. 

Research has shown that services for older people living alone are often based on the premise of an increased risk for loneliness and social isolation, factors which are associated with poorer health outcomes. However, the participants in our sample were generally well established in living alone and a greater priority seemed to be access to practical assistance to enable continued independent living. For the future, it is important that health and social care policies and services are aligned to the actual needs of solo women as a unique demographic.

Eileen Reilly is a Senior Medical Social Worker at Beaumont Hospital, currently working with the Palliative Care Service. Prof Trish Hafford-Letchfield is Professor of Social Work at Strathclyde University. Nicky Lambert is an Associate Professor and Director of Teaching and Learning for Mental Health and Social Work at Middlesex University

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ