Skip to main content

Support networks of childless older people: informal and formal support in Europe


Western societies are ageing rapidly. Today people do not only live longer, they also have fewer children. These developments exert considerable pressure on welfare states. Children have usually been the mainstay of old age support, especially when there is no partner. We thus face new challenges: On which support networks can a growing number of childless older people rely? (How) can the lack of children be compensated in the informal social network? What role does the state play and how is informal and formal support linked? Our comparative analyses of the support networks of childless elders are based on the first two waves of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe, including 14,394 people with (instrumental) activities of daily living limitations aged 50 and over from 12 European countries. On average, 10 per cent of older Europeans today have no children. Sporadic informal support for these elders is often taken over by the extended family, friends and neighbours, and thus the lack of children is compensated within the social network. Intense care tasks, however, are more likely provided by professional providers, especially in the case of childless older people. In countries with low social service provision, childless elders are therefore likely to experience a lack of (formal) support, especially when depending on vital care.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Support networks of childless older people: informal and formal support in Europe
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Support networks of childless older people: informal and formal support in Europe
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Support networks of childless older people: informal and formal support in Europe
      Available formats
Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Christian Deindl, Faculty of Social Sciences, Goethe University Frankfurt, Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 6, DE-60323 Frankfurt am Main, Germany E-mail:
Hide All
Abma J. C. and Martinez G. M. 2006. Childlessness among older women in the United States: trends and profiles. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68, 4, 1045–56.
Albertini M. and Kohli M. 2009. What childless older people give: is the generational link broken? Ageing & Society, 29, 8, 1261–74.
Albertini M. and Mencarini L. 2014. Childlessness and support networks in later life: new pressures on familialistic welfare states? Journal of Family Issues, 35, 3, 331–57.
Antonucci T. C. and Akiyama H. 1987. Social networks in adult life and a preliminary examination of the convoy model. Journal of Gerontology, 42, 5, 519–27.
Attias-Donfut C., Ogg J. and Wolff F.-C. 2005. European patterns of intergenerational financial and time transfers. European Journal of Ageing, 2, 3, 161–73.
Attias-Donfut C. and Wolff F.-C. 2000. Complementarity between private and public transfers. In Arber S. and Attias-Donfut C. (eds), The Myth of Generational Conflict: The Family and State in Ageing Societies. Routledge, London, 4768.
Bolin K., Lindgren B. and Lundborg P. 2008. Informal and formal care among single-living elderly in Europe. Health Economics, 17, 3, 393409.
Bonsang E. 2009. Does informal care from children to their elderly parents substitute for formal care in Europe? Journal of Health Economics, 28, 1, 143–54.
Börsch-Supan A., Brandt M., Hunkler C., Kneip T., Korbmacher J., Malter F., Schaan B., Stuck S. and Zuber S. on behalf of the SHARE Central Coordination Team 2013. Data resource profile: the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). International Journal of Epidemiology, 42, 4, 9921001.
Brandt M. 2013. Intergenerational help and public support in Europe. A case of specialization? European Societies, 15, 1, 2656.
Brandt M. and Deindl C. 2013. Intergenerational transfers to adult children in Europe: do social policies matter? Journal of Marriage and Family, 75, 1, 235–51.
Brandt M., Haberkern K. and Szydlik M. 2009. Intergenerational help and care in Europe. European Sociological Review, 25, 5, 585601.
Choi N. G. 1994. Patterns and determinants of social service utilization: comparison of the childless elderly and elderly parents living with or apart from their children. The Gerontologist, 34, 3, 353–62.
Crimmins E. M. 2004. Trends in the health of the elderly. Annual Review of Public Health, 25, 7998.
Crimmins E. M. and Beltrán-Sanchez H. 2010. Mortality and morbidity trends: is there compression of morbidity? Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 66B, 1, 7586.
Daatland S. O. and Herlofson K. 2003. Families and welfare states: substitution or complementarity. In Lowenstein A. and Ogg J. (eds), OASIS: Old Age and Autonomy – The Role of Service Systems and Intergenerational Family Solidarity. The Final Report. University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel, 281305.
Deindl C. and Brandt M. 2011. Financial support and practical help between older parents and their middle-aged children in Europe. Ageing & Society, 31, 4, 645–62.
DeOllos I. Y. and Kapinus C. A. 2002. Aging childless individuals and couples: suggestions for new directions in research. Sociological Inquiry, 72, 1, 7280.
Dykstra P. A. 2006. Off the beaten track: childlessness and social integration in late life. Research on Aging, 28, 6, 749–67.
Dykstra P. A. 2015. Childless older adults. In Whitbourne S. K. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Adulthood and Aging. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, New Jersey, 15.
Dykstra P. A. and Keizer R. 2009. The wellbeing of childless men and fathers in mid-life. Ageing & Society, 29, 8, 1227–42.
Gray A. 2009. The social capital of older people. Ageing & Society, 29, 1, 531.
Grundy E. and Read S. 2012. Social contacts and receipt of help among older people in England: are there benefits from having more children? Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 67, 6, 742–54.
Haberkern K. and Szydlik M. 2010. State care provision, societal opinion and children's care of older parents in 11 European countries. Ageing & Society, 30, 2, 299323.
Hagestad G. O. and Call V. R. A. 2007. Pathways to childlessness: a life course perspective. Journal of Family Issues, 28, 10, 1338–61.
Hank K. 2007. Proximity and contact between older parents and their children: a European comparison. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 1, 157–73.
Hank K. and Wagner M. 2013. Parenthood, marital status, and well-being in later life: evidence from SHARE. Social Indicators Research, 114, 2, 639–53.
Hayford S. R. 2013. Marriage (still) matters: the contribution of demographic change to trends in childlessness in the United States. Demography, 50, 5, 1641–61.
Herlofson K. and Hagestad G. 2011. Challenges in moving from macro to micro: population and family structures in ageing societies. Demographic Research, 25, 10, 337–70.
Hox J. J. 2002. Multilevel Analysis: Techniques and Applications. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, New Jersey.
Hurd M. D. 2009. Inter-vivos giving by older people in the United States: who received financial gifts from childless? Ageing & Society, 29, 8, 1207–25.
Igel C. and Szydlik M. 2011. Grandchild care and welfare state arrangements in Europe. Journal of European Social Policy, 21, 3, 210–24.
Johnson C. L. and Catalano D. J. 1981. Childless elderly and their family supports. The Gerontologist, 21, 6, 610–8.
Kahn R. L. and Antonucci T. C. 1980. Convoys over the life course: attachment, roles, and social support. In Baltes P. B. and Brim O. G. (eds), Life-span Development and Behavior. Volume 3, Academic Press, New York, 253–86.
Keith P. M. 1983 a. Patterns of assistance among parents and the childless in very old age. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 6, 1, 4959.
Keith P. M. 1983 b. A comparison of the resources of parents and childless men and women in very old age. Family Relations, 32, 3, 403–9.
Keizer R., Dykstra P. A. and Poortman A.-R. 2010. Life outcomes of childless men and fathers. European Sociological Review, 26, 1, 115.
Kmec J. A. 2011. Are motherhood penalties and fatherhood bonuses warranted? Comparing pro-work behaviors and conditions of mothers, fathers, and non-parents. Social Science Research, 40, 2, 444–59.
Kohli M. 1999. Private and public transfers between generations: linking the family and the state. European Societies, 1, 1, 81104.
Koslowski A. S. 2011. Working fathers in Europe: earning and caring. European Sociological Review, 27, 2, 230–45.
Kühhirt M. and Ludwig V. 2012. Domestic work and the wage penalty for motherhood in West Germany. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 1, 186200.
Künemund H. and Rein M. 1999. There is more to receiving than needing: theoretical arguments and empirical explorations of crowding in and crowding out. Ageing & Society, 19, 1, 93121.
Larsson K. and Silverstein M. 2004. The effects of marital and parental status on informal support and service utilization: a study of older Swedes living alone. Journal of Aging Studies, 18, 2, 231–44.
Litwak E. 1985. Helping the Elderly: Complementary Roles of Informal Networks and Formal Systems. Guilford Press, New York.
Litwin H. and Attias-Donfut C. 2009. The inter-relationship between formal and informal care: a study in France and Israel. Ageing & Society, 29, 1, 7191.
McQuillan J., Greil A. L., Shreffler K. M., Wonch-Hill P. A., Gentzler K. C. and Hathcoat J. D. 2012. Does the reason matter? Variations in childlessness concerns among U.S. women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 5, 1166–81.
Motel-Klingebiel A., Tesch-Römer C. and von Kondratowitz H.-J. 2005. Welfare states do not crowd out the family: evidence for mixed responsibility from comparative analyses. Ageing & Society, 25, 6, 863–82.
Murphy M. J., Martikainen P. and Pennec S. 2006. Demographic change and the supply of potential family supporters in Britain, Finland and France in the period 1911–2050. European Journal of Population, 22, 3, 219–40.
Oeppen J. and Vaupel J. W. 2002. Broken limits to life expectancy. Science, 296, 5579, 1029–31.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2007. Annual Labour Force Statistics. OECD. Available online at,3343,en_21571361_33915056_39095792_1_1_1_1,00.html#.
Reil-Held A. 2006. Crowding out or crowding in? Public and private transfers in Germany. European Journal of Population, 22, 3, 263–80.
Rowland D. T. 2007. Historical trends in childlessness. Journal of Family Issues, 28, 10, 1311–37.
Simon J. G., De Boer J. B., Joung I. M. A., Bosma H. and Mackenbach J. P. 2005. How is your health in general? A qualitative study on self-assessed health. European Journal of Public Health, 15, 2, 200–8.
Snijders T. A. B. and Bosker R. J. 1999. Multilevel Analysis. An Introduction to Basic and Advanced Multilevel Modeling. Sage, London.
Suanet B., Broese van Groenou M. I. and van Tilburg T. G. 2012. Informal and formal home-care use among older adults in Europe: can cross-national differences be explained by societal context and composition? Ageing & Society, 32, 3, 491515.
United Nations 2012. UN Classifications Registry. Detailed Structure and Explanatory Notes. United Nations. Available online at (accessed 01.03.2013)
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ageing & Society
  • ISSN: 0144-686X
  • EISSN: 1469-1779
  • URL: /core/journals/ageing-and-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 32
Total number of PDF views: 338 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1042 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd February 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.