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Social Changes Affecting Family Relationships

In addition to demographic change, several social changes over the twentieth century have altered family relations involving older people. First, alternative family forms (blended families, single parent families, cohabiting relationships, gay and lesbian unions) have become more common and more accepted. It is not clear how this diversity of "family" forms will affect the lives of older people in the twenty-first century. On the one hand, the plurality of forms may create a broader range of available kinship ties. On the other hand, these alternative kin relationships may not be as strong as the enduring parent-child relationships that have been the primary source of long-term caregiving for disabled older people. The negative effect of divorce on the strength of intergenerational relationships tends to be more significant for males than females.

Second, gender roles have changed as women have surpassed men in educational attainment and have greatly increased their level of participation in the paid labor force. For older people, this means that middle-aged daughters are more likely to be in the labor force and, consequently, less available to provide care for them than in the past (and, as noted above, in the future old people will have fewer adult children). Changing gender roles are also likely to alter marital relationships in later life, as women become less dependent on husbands to manage the family economy and expect more egalitarian and companionate relationships.

Third, the transformation of the American economy has produced a tremendous change in the standard of living over the twentieth century. Increasing affluence has been accompanied by a decline in intergenerational coresidence for older people. In 1900 most older widows resided with an adult child; now most older widows live alone and very few live with a child. The increasing independence in living arrangements does not, however, mean that parent-child relationships have become weak. Almost all older people report having a close relationship with their children, but prefer "intimacy at a distance" to sharing a home. In general, the spread of social security, private pensions, and lifetime savings means that fewer old people are dependent on children for economic support than in the past, so intergenerational relationships are increasingly based on social and emotional bonds.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2Family - Demographic Changes Affecting Family Structure, Social Changes Affecting Family Relationships, The Future