Grandparenting typically begins in midlife rather than late adulthood, but because people are living longer, they can anticipate being grandparents for longer periods of time. Cherlin and Furstenberg (1986) describe three styles of grandparents:
1. Remote: These grandparents rarely see their grandchildren. Usually they live far away from the grandchildren, but may also have a distant relationship. Contact is typically made on special occasions such as holidays or birthdays. Thirty percent of the grandparents studied by Cherlin and Furstenberg were remote.
2. Companionate Grandparents: Fifty-five percent of grandparents studied were described as “companionate”. These grandparents do things with the grandchild but have little authority or control over them. They prefer to spend time with them without interfering in parenting. They are more like friends to their grandchildren.
3. Involved Grandparents: Fifteen percent of grandparents were described as “involved”. These grandparents take a very active role in their grandchild’s life. They children might even live with the grandparent. The involved grandparent is one who has frequent contact with and authority over the grandchild.
An increasing number of grandparents are raising grandchildren today. Issues such as custody, visitation, and continued contact between grandparents and grandchildren after parental divorce are contemporary concerns.
Marriage and Divorce
Fifty-six percent of people over 65 are married. The majority of older men and just over 40 percent of older women are married (He et al., 2005). Seven percent of older men and 9 percent of older women are divorced and about 4 percent of older adults have never married. Many married couples feel their marriage has improved with time and the emotional intensity and level of conflict that might have been experienced earlier, has declined. This is not to say that bad marriages become good ones over the years, but that those marriages that were very conflict-ridden may no longer be together, and that many of the disagreement couples might have had earlier in their marriages may no longer be concerns. Children have grown and the division of labor in the home has probably been established. Men tend to report being satisfied with marriage more than do women. Women are more likely to complain about caring for a spouse who is ill or accommodating a retired husband and planning activities. Older couples continue to engage in sexual activity, but with less focus on intercourse and more on cuddling, caressing, and oral sex (Carroll, 2007).
Divorce after long-term marriage does occur, but is not very common. However, with the number of older adults on the rise, the divorce rate is likely to increase. A longer life expectancy and the expectation of happiness cause some older couples to begin a new life after divorce after 65. Consider Betty who divorced after 40 years of marriage. Her marriage had never been ideal but she stuck with it hoping things would improve and because she didn’t want to hurt her husband’s reputation (he was in a job in which divorce was frowned upon). But she always hoped for more freedom and happiness in life and once her family obligations were no longer as great (the children and grandchildren were on their own), she and her husband divorced. She characterized this as an act of love in that both she and her ex-husband were able to pursue their dreams in later life (Author’s notes). Older adults who have been divorce since midlife tend to have settled into comfortable lives and, if they have raised children, to be proud of their accomplishments as single parents.
Twenty-nine percent of people over 65 are widowed (U. S. Census Bureau, 2011). The death of a spouse is one of life’s most disruptive experiences. It is especially hard on men who lose their wives. Often widowers do not have a network of friends or family members to fall back on and may have difficulty expressing their emotions to facilitate grief. Also, they may have been very dependent on their mates for routine tasks such as cooking, cleaning, etc. In addition, they typically expect to precede their wives in death and by losing a wife, have to adjust to something unexpected. However, if a man can adjust, he will find that he is in great demand, should he decide to remarry.
Widows may have less difficulty because they do have a social network and can take care of their own daily needs. They may have more difficulty financially if their husband’s have handled all the finances in the past. They are much less likely to remarry because many do not wish to and because there are fewer men available. At 65, there are 73 men to every 100 women. The sex ratio becomes even further imbalanced at 85 with 48 men to every 100 women (U. S. Census Bureau, 2011).
Loneliness or solitude? Loneliness is a discrepancy between the social contact a person has and the contacts a person wants (Brehm et al., 2002). It can result from social or emotional isolation. Women tend to experience loneliness as a result of social isolation; men from emotional isolation. Loneliness can be accompanied by a lack of self-worth, impatience, desperation, and depression. This can lead to suicide, particularly in older, white, men who have the highest suicide rates of any age group, higher than Blacks, and higher than for females. Rates of suicide continue to climb and peaks in males after age 85 (National Center for Health Statistics, CDC, 2002).
Being alone does not always result in loneliness. For some, it means solitude. Solitude involves gaining self-awareness, taking care of the self, being comfortable alone, and pursuing one’s interests (Brehm et al., 2002). Winnie, aged 80, describes her life alone as comfortable and meaningful. “I’m up early to take care of my 3 year old great-granddaughter who stays with me. We play and have lunch and later her mother comes after her. I love to sing and sing all the time. I sing in the choir. . . I enjoy my mornings at the kitchen table with my coffee. And me and Coco (her dog) enjoy sitting in the sun.” (Author’s notes).
Single, Cohabiting, and Remarried Older Adults
About 4 percent of adults never marry. Many have long-term relationships, however. The never married tend to be very involved in family and care giving and do not appear to be particularly unhappy during late adulthood, especially if they have a healthy network of friends. Friendships tend to be an important influence in life satisfaction during late adulthood. Friends may be more influential than family members for many older adults. According to socioemotional selectivity theory, older adults become more selective in their friendships than when they were younger (Carstensen, Fung, & Charles, 2003). Friendships are not formed in order to enhance status or careers, and may be based purely on a sense of connection or the enjoyment of being together. Most elderly people have at least one close friend. These friends may provide emotional as well as physical support. Being able to talk with friends and rely on others is very important during this stage of life.
About 4 percent of older couples chose cohabitation over marriage (Chevan, 1996). As discussed in our lesson on early adulthood, these couples may prefer cohabitation for financial reasons, may be same-sex couples who cannot legally marry, or couples who do not want to marry because of previous dissatisfaction with marital relationships. There are between 1 and 3 million gay and lesbian older adults in America today and numbers will continue to increase (Cahill et al., 2000). These older adults have concerns over health insurance, being able to share living quarters in nursing homes and assisted living residences where staff members tend not to be accepting of homosexuality and bisexuality. SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment) is an advocacy group working on remedying these concerns. Same-sex couples who have endured prejudice and discrimination through the years and can rely upon one another continue to have support through late adulthood. Those who are institutionalized, however, may find it harder to live together.
Couples, who remarry after midlife, tend to be happier in their marriages than in first marriage. These partners are likely to be more financially independent, have children who are grown, and enjoy a greater emotional wisdom that comes with experience.
Older adults do not typically relocate far from their previous places of residence during late adulthood. A minority lives in planned retirement communities that require residents to be of a certain age. However, many older adults live in age-segregated neighborhoods that have become segregated as original inhabitants have aged and children have moved on. A major concern in future city planning and development will be whether older adults wish to live in age integrated or age segregated communities.
Older Adults, Caregiving, and Long-Term Care
We previously noted the number of older adults who require long-term care and noted that the number increases with age. Most (70 percent) of older adults who require care receive that care in the home. Most are cared for by their spouse, or by a daughter or daughter-in-law. However, those who are not cared for at home are institutionalized. In 2008, 1.6 million out of the total 38.9 million Americans age 65 and older were nursing home residents (U. S. Census Bureau, 2011). Among 65-74, 11 per 1,000 adults aged 65 and older were in nursing homes. That number increases to 182 per 1,000 after age 85. More residents are women than men, and more are Black than white. As the population of those over 85 continues to increase, more will require nursing home care. Meeting the psychological and social as well as physical needs of nursing home residents is a growing concern. Rather than focusing primarily on food, hygiene, and medication, quality of life within these facilities is important. Residents of nursing homes are sometimes stripped of their identity as their personal possessions and reminders of their life are taken away. A rigid routine in which the residents have little voice can be alienating to an older adult. Routines that encourage passivity and dependence can be damaging to self-esteem and lead to further deterioration of health. Greater attention needs to be given to promoting successful aging within institutions.
Nursing homes have been publicized as places where older adults are at risk of abuse. Abuse and neglect of nursing home residents is more often found in facilities that are run down and understaffed. However, older adults are more frequently abused by family members. The most commonly reported types of abuse are financial abuse and neglect. Victims are usually very frail and impaired and perpetrators are usually dependent on the victims for support. Prosecuting a family member who has financially abused a parent is very difficult. The victim may be reluctant to press charges and the court dockets are often very full resulting in long waits before a case is heard. Granny dumping or the practice of family members abandoning older family members with severe disabilities in emergency rooms is a growing problem. An estimated 100,000 and 200,000 are dumped each year (Tanne in Berk, 2007).
Greater understanding of the needs of older adults and more resources with which to provide for these needs are necessary to promote healthy aging in our growing population of older adults. We are coming to recognize the strengths of late adulthood and to move beyond the stereotypes of aging. This new appreciation of the value of older adults promises to lay the groundwork for a new approach to this period of life.