I Love Being Child-Free, but Who Will Take Care of Me When I'm Older?

Content warning: The following story contains a mention of intimate-partner violence.

I own one ring. It's gold with an aquamarine stone in the middle and two tiny diamonds on each side. On an otherwise unremarkable day a few years ago, my mom looked down at the 1970s-era piece of jewelry hugging her finger, said, "Here," and handed it to me. If I had to guess, I'd say she gifted me the ring because it came from an old boyfriend, and my dad is a jealous man.

I've kept some gifts from old boyfriends myself: DVDs, books, lingerie. I've kept a few notes and photos as well. They're nestled in a vintage suitcase, another hand-me-down from my mom, which she took with her from southeast Missouri to Memphis, TN, to Kansas City, MO, and back again after divorcing her first husband. It functions as my guitar stand, and I almost never open it. Occasionally, I wonder if ritualistically burning every memento it holds might be healing.

A few months ago, one of my nieces asked me what I keep in there — "there" being the vintage suitcase. When I told her it was full of "old boyfriend stuff," she surprised me with, "That's what I thought." She is the most intuitive kid I've ever met. She's intensely curious, and her curiosity got me wondering: who will I give my "old boyfriend stuff" to?

Both of my siblings, most of my cousins, and a few of my friends are parents, so my life is full of wonderful kids these days — but they aren't mine. I'm Aunt Lizzy, not mom. I started thinking about my aunts and uncles, and how I've always assumed their kids would take care of them as they age. A line of thinking that eventually led to: who will take care of me when I can't take care of myself?

My mom spent nearly a decade taking care of her dying parents. When she and my dad start dying, my sister and I will take care of them. But assuming my own death isn't sudden, I have no idea who will take care of me as I age. I'm the youngest sibling in my family. I'm happily single, I'm child-free by choice, and I'm not a wealthy woman.

I love being an aunt, but I don't want children of my own; I have absolutely no desire to experience pregnancy or birth. I used to consider adoption a possibility, but that doesn't appeal to me these days either. I love kids, but I don't want to raise one. Rejecting motherhood is a life choice I'm completely at peace with. Even so, if I'm lucky enough to live a long life, I wonder how my choice will impact me in my final years. I will always be there for my nieces and nephews, but I can't expect them to always be there for me — they have their own parents to take care of.

I had my medical power of attorney notarized in 2023. Concerned for my health, the notary working with me said, "Is something going on?" I replied, "No, but coming from a family of healthcare workers makes me want to be prepared." It was entirely true, but it's also true that death is part of life, and aging is a privilege. I know this personally: shortly after my 25th birthday, I ended a long-term relationship with a guy who threatened to kill me on more than one occasion. Shortly after my 29th birthday, I came close to dying from an unexpected illness that nearly caused multiple organ failure.

A while back, my sister and I were sitting on her couch talking about death. Specifically, we both said we hoped not to die alone. One of my nieces was sitting with us, and when I said, "Maybe you'll be there with me," her only response was a sad smile and a hug, followed by a request to change the subject. I suppose "maybe" is all I can hope for. Perhaps it's all anyone can hope for, with or without children.

I'm fortunate to have strong family ties, and I'm thankful for my chosen family. That power of attorney I mentioned earlier? My sister and a close friend hold the copies. When I needed to move out of the apartment my abusive ex and I shared, my parents dropped everything to help me. When I needed to be rushed to the hospital before my organs failed, it was my neighbor who did the rushing. And whenever I get the chance and am financially able to, I host a party for my chosen family to keep us close.

As a single adult, no matter where I've lived, I've managed to craft a support system for myself that's not restricted to the confines of partnership, marriage, motherhood, or blood. Still, I don't know what end-of-life care looks like for me as a child-free, unmarried, low-income woman in a country where healthcare is considered a privilege. Sometimes, that scares me more than death.

At 33, I have to believe there's still plenty of time for me to build a solid (or at least decent) end-of-life fund for myself. It's also possible I might fall in love with someone who will happily help take care of me in my old age, whether physically, financially, or both. Ultimately, I'm grateful the only thing that worries me about being single and child-free is who will take care of me when I can't take care of myself, and maybe it's a positive thing that I'm worrying about this now instead of later in life. Even so, I wish I didn't have to worry at all.