Owing to the longevity revolution, there are three, four, and even five consanguial generations alive simultaneously. In Austin during the 1980s, for instance, Ms. Meghan Anne Ryan entered the world to be greeted by two grandmothers, four great-grandmothers, a great-grandfather, a great-great-grandmother, and a great-great-great-grandmother.

As is so often the case in family history, there is considerable idealizations of a past that never was--a past with three generations of family members living under one roof on Walton's Mountain. Family historians reveal that the structure of the family has not changed drastically and that, in the United States, there was no "Golden Age" when older family members were invariably well-taken care of. Three-generational households have always been relatively rare; as soon as it was financially possible, the younger generation moved out to be on its own.

Nevertheless, as developed elsewhere, is the undeniable significance of family life for individuals, which consistently ranks as the greatest source of life satisfactions. Here let us first consider the family lives of older individuals in a life-cycle context.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1995 some 32% of Americans 65 and older lived alone. Click here for Census report "Marital Status and Living Arrangements, March 15" (pdf format).  Looking at the combined 1973-98 NORC General Social Surveys, we find the following marital status of American whites and blacks:

AGE 65-74 75 and older
MARRIED 76% 42% 57% 31% 58% 18% 55% 10%
WIDOWED 11 43 26 50 31 73 32 73
DIVORCED 6 7 5 6 4 4 6 6
SEPARATED 1 1 6 9 1 1 5 6
6 6 6 4 5 4 3 6
TOTAL 1525 2113 162 260 816 1506 74 120

Evident above is the disproportionate extent to which females occupy the widowhood status. There are about five times as many widows as widowers in the United States, according to the 1990 Census. Nearly 85% of women outlive their spouses, with nearly 70% being widowed by age 65. Owing to increases in life-expectancy, the age at which Americans enter this status has increased significantly over the course of this century. For instance, demographers have estimated that 42% of black wives were, around 1900, widowed by the ages 45 to 50.

What are the the marital satisfactions of older Americans relative to those at other stages of the life-cycle? Again using the combined General Social Surveys we find:


18-29 66% 69% 57% 51%
30-39 66 63 45 40
40-49 62 62 52 37
50-59 67 64 56 51
60-69 71 62 63 50
70-79 73 65 49 62
80+ 74 66 64 --


A 1980s report from the Subcommittee on Human Services of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Aging noted: "Today, the average woman will spend 17 years of her life caring for a dependent child and 18 years helping a dependent parent."

In the same decade, a study of the caregiving activities of employees of the Travelers Corporation in Hartford (principal investigators: Glenn T. Ball and Barbara Greenberg) revealed them to be spending considerable time for elderly relatives and friends:

One can only imagine what the social costs would be if families did not care for their own.   One estimate comes from a 1998 survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving, which calculated that  family caregiving saves society between $113- $286 billion a year. The costs for elderly caregivers, however, could be lethal.  According to a 1999 study by Richard Schulz and Scott Beach of 392 married caregivers and 427 married non-caregivers aged 66 to 96 years, those who cared for a disabled spouse were 63% more likely to die over the next four years. 

First, to see what you know, take a moment to take a caregiver's quiz.

There is no shortage of web resources to assist those caring for older family members. Below are some of those our recent classes found to be most informative.

Administration on Aging's "ElderPage: Information for Older Persons and Families"
Caregiver Network's "Care for the Caregiver." Examine the personal stories of caregivers in the "sandwich generation".
Answers Magazine, a resource guide for adult children of aging parents
Jasperon--"Empowering individuals, families and professionals to educate and support each other in every aspect of advance care planning"
Department of Defense's "Taking Care of Older Family Members," including the "DoD Caregivers Guide"

Studies in the early nineties (the 1993 Health and Retirement Survey, conducted by Thomas Juster for the NIA, n=12,600; an AARP national survey of people 18 and over; and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's National Survey of Families and Households) reveal the middle-age squeeze, where between 30 and 40 percent of those in their 50s with children were helping them and one-third were helping their parents financially or in other ways (see Fred Groh's "A Nation of Caregivers?", with results of the National Alliance for Caregiving survey that found more than 22 million families provide informal, unpaid care for an older parent or relative--up from 7 million in 1987). Click here to see women's attitudes toward older family members living with their children, by age over time.

It is not surprising that Americans observe National Family Caregivers Week (November 23-29 in 1997). Neither is it surprising how the service sector has moved into this domain of family life.

So when families must deal with the service sector, what criteria need they consider when evaluating such options as in-home care, assisted living residences, or nursing homes? Check out CareGuide's listings at its "FAQs About Elder Care" site.  For a rich story of the familial impacts of an older member moving into a retirement home listen to "Mom's Good Move" on NPR.


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