OTTAWA (CCN) — For the first time since Confederation, the number of lone-person households now exceeds the number of families composed of couples with children and has become the most common type of household in Canada, Statistics Canada reported Aug. 2.
The new census data underscores a host of new challenges for government policy, churches and other social institutions, said experts.
The data shows a trend toward increasing family instability and social isolation, particularly for seniors, warns Peter Jon Mitchell, a senior Cardus senior researcher.
Not only will there be additional stress on adult children, who are also aging, but also on government-assisted home care, end-of-life care and social assistance programs, he warned.
“People living alone are going to require more assistance,” he said.
Lone-person households comprise 28.2 per cent of all households in Canada, up from 7.4 per cent in 1951 and up from 25.7 per cent in 2001. Statistics Canada reports this level is about the same as that of the United States and the United Kingdom, but lower than France (33.8 per cent in 2011), Japan (34.5 per cent in 2015), Norway (40 per cent), and Germany (41.4 per cent in 2015).
The rise in lone-person elderly is especially important to address now that physician-assisted suicide is legal, said Michel MacDonald, executive director of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family.
“How are we as a society going to respond to that? How are we as a church going to accompany these people?” he asked. “We really do have to reach out. These are people on the periphery, these are people right in our church, but they are on the periphery — the lonely in our parishes.”
MacDonald believes data reveals challenges the Catholic Church must address.
“We live in a culture where our physical needs are met for the most part,” MacDonald said. “We have all of the good things of life. But St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta talked about the spiritual poverty of the West. It’s not material poverty, but loneliness.
“For good reasons, our churches are focused on families and family ministries, but we have to be very aware of this current trend of people living alone, people who are unattached and how our communities of faith are engaging those folks as well,” he said.
Not all the lone person households are elderly, however.
“People are getting into marriage later,” Mitchell said. “We might have more young people who are living alone, especially as people are seeking more post-secondary education or working to establish themselves a bit more.”
In addition to one-person households, the number of couples without children is growing faster than couples with children, Mitchell pointed out. “Only 51 per cent of couples have children, but that number is declining.”
The number of couples that cohabit rather than marry is also rising (at 21.3 per cent), though married couples still represent the majority at 78.7 per cent of couples, the census shows. The highest number of cohabitating couples are in Quebec and Nunavut. In Quebec, the number is twice as high as the Canadian average at 39.9 per cent of couples. In Nunavut, however, 50.3 per cent of couples live common law.
“Fortunately, marriage still remains the most common form of relationship for couples,” said Cardus Family director Andrea Mrozek. “But the trend is toward less stable relationships. That implies more breakups, more drastic changes in domestic life, and more turmoil — things that can harm physical and mental health, not to mention any children who may be in the picture.”
The research is abundantly clear that children do best in stable families with two parents, so it’s encouraging not to see a rising proportion of kids in single-parent homes,” says Mrozek. “It would be even better if we could see that proportion decline — something that could happen if Canada could raise its marriage rates.”
Mitchell pointed out there’s been a “shift from marriage as a starting point to build a foundation,” then having children, then buying a home. People are “flipping that life script,” by getting established in their careers and buying a home first, before they get married, he said.
“Generally we see fewer people being committed to marriage,” said MacDonald. “What’s the cause of that? Why is this? Are they afraid of commitment? Is it because they themselves are coming from broken families? How do we respond to that?”
“Obviously the statistics are telling us something,” he said.
MacDonald pointed to Pope Francis’ words in his recent post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, where he calls for “encouraging openness to grace” rather than simply stressing doctrinal issues.
“We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden,” the pope wrote.
“I think that’s key,” MacDonald said. The answer, is found in #40 of the document where Pope Francis writes: “We need to find the right language, arguments and forms of witness that can help us reach the hearts of young people, appealing to their capacity for generosity, commitment, love and even heroism, and in this way inviting them to take up the challenge of marriage with enthusiasm and courage.”
“We can’t moralize or wag our finger, but we really have to live the gospel in such a way that people are attracted to it,” said MacDonald.
“It comes down to fear of commitment, fear of seeing this is going to last, this can last,” he said. “People don’t see a value in marriage. They see a value in their relationship, but they don’t see a value in making that public. Marriage is a public act, and as a public act there’s a strength to it.”
For Mitchell, healthy marriage requires positive role models.
“Institutions like the church can provide examples of functioning, healthy marriages within the community,” he said.