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Diversity In Living Arrangements, Advantages And Disadvantages Of Coresidence, Changing Patterns In Coresidence, Conclusion

Over the course of the twentieth century, dramatic changes occurred in the coresidential patterns of older Americans. Between 1900 and 1998, the percentage of elderly persons living alone increased five-fold, rising from 5 percent to 26 percent. This historical rise in living alone has been attributed to three basic mechanisms that reflect a long-term change in the status and well-being of older people and their families: (1) increasing levels of economic resources available to the older population, (2) an increased preference for privacy and residential independence, and (3) demographic changes affecting the availability of potential residential partners.

Economic resources. Scholars have attributed the increasing pursuit of independent living and economic security among widows to the growth in public entitlement programs. In the past, widows were more compelled to rely on family support. Evidence of an economic basis for the historical rise in living alone has been documented by McGarry and Schoeni (2000), who demonstrated that income growth in the personal incomes of older citizens, particularly through Social Security benefits, have allowed the elderly to live apart from family. This finding echoes Anderson's (1977) research showing how the introduction of pensions in nineteenth-century England enabled greater residential independence of older people. Although pensions increased the propensity for older adults to live alone, having wealthier offspring may dampen this effect. Another version of the economic model, however, is advanced by Steven Ruggles (1996), who connected burgeoning household wealth during the late nineteenth century to the growth in the proportion of people living in extended family households. Economic resources accumulated by younger families enabled them to coreside with elderly family members, which did little to enhance the economic (and residential) freedom of the older generation.

Preferences. Another factor influencing historical patterns of coresidence among older Americans has been the increasing preference for single living. Personal preferences often reflect the changing norms of a modernizing society as it moves from a more collectivistic to a more individualistic orientation, stressing autonomy and privacy. Although most scholars acknowledge that preference or taste has played a role in the growing residential independence of the aged, they disagree over its relative contribution and timing. Some researchers have identified the preference to live apart from kin as a persistent, but latent, desire among the elderly that only recently—through public entitlement programs—has become economically feasible. Preferences for intergenerational coresidence also appear to be perpetuated through generations as an aspect of family culture. Having lived in a three-generational household as a child appears to strengthens one's willingness as an adult to provide housing for an older parent.

Demographic change. The availability of suitable household partners is another key dimension determining coresidency patterns of older adults. Among the demographic transitions altering such availability are fertility, divorce, and widowhood. Fertility rates were particularly low during the Great Depression (1930s) and World War II periods, resulting in relatively smaller families among the current cohort of the oldest old. R. T. Gillaspy (1979) cites lower fertility rates among women born at the turn of the twentieth century as a main reason for the 16 percent increase between 1970 and 1998 in the proportion of women 75 years and older living alone. Sharp fertility increases during the post–World War II years (1946–1964) increased the pool of potential residential partners for the current young-old, while a decline in the fertility rates of the baby boomers themselves portends a deficit of such partners in future elderly cohorts.

Even though fertility rates fluctuated somewhat over the last half of the twentieth century, there was an overall decline in such rates between 1940 and 1998. There was also a decline (from 71 percent to 20 percent) in the percentage of women living with their children during this period. However, an important factor that mitigated the impact of fertility reductions on kin-supply was the dramatic increase in life expectancy resulting from mortality declines during the twentieth century. As children are able to spend more of their adult years with their parents, they have greater opportunities for sharing a residence with them.

Changing marriage patterns have also contributed to the growing trend among elderly persons to live alone. Janet Wilmoth (1998) found that transitioning to living alone increases with marital dissolution, whether due to death, separation, or divorce. While separation and divorce are relatively less common than widowhood in the older population, this pathway to living alone has grown increasingly more prevalent among the young-old. Baby boomers will present an older cohort with relatively high representations of never-married, divorced, and childless individuals. These trends may well signal a future decline in the proportion of elderly persons who coreside with family members.

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1