Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

1.14: Aging and Families

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    Chapter 14: Aging and Families

    The United States of America is inhabited by many diverse people, including distinguishable generations of society's members based on age. Gerontology is the scientific study of the processes and phenomena of aging and growing old. Depending on the definition of being elderly, the government typically sets 65 to be the elderly years, the American Association of Retired Persons finds 55 to be the eligible age of membership, and many elderly define their 70's or 80's as the time they begin to feel elderly. Gerontology is multi-disciplinary with medical and biological scientists, social scientists, and even financial and economic scientists all studying the processes of aging from their disciplines point of view.

    Social gerontology is the sociological subfield of gerontology which focuses on the nonphysical and social aspects of aging. Sociology focuses on the broad understanding of the elderly experience, their health, their emotional and social wellness, and their quality of life just to mention a few. How many elderly live in the US in 2008? Family Gerontology is the subfield that focuses on the family experiences of elderly persons.

    Table 1: Numbers and Percent of United States Population Aged 65 and Over 2008
    ≤ 14 years of Age 15-64 Years old US Elderly Uniter States Total
    61,146,753 (20.1%) 203,987,724 (67.1%) 38,690,169 (12.7%) 303,824,646 (100%)

    The future growth of the US elderly population is immense in comparison to previous Census tabulations and growth rates. In Figure 1 below you see tremendous growth in the United States where the elderly now comprise only 1 in 8 members of US society, but will eventually in 2050 comprise 1 in 5. In Figure 2 below you can see that the oldest old--85 years and older is also growing rapidly. This means that in general more people are living longer. In fact there are more Centenarians than ever before. A centenarian is a living person who has had his or her 100 birthday. US Census counts indicated about 37,000 centenarians in 1990 and about 50,000 in 2000 (See Kestenbaum and Reneé, 2006 Retrieved from the Internet 19 July, 2008 from

    In many societies the elderly are revered (especially Asian societies). Filial piety is the value, respect, and reverence of one's elderly which is often accompanied by caregiving and support of the elderly. Grandparents and even great-grandparents are valued and included in the home of the mother, father, and their children. These families are enriched by 3 and sometimes 4 generations of family members supporting the socialization of the younger members of the family. In Western countries, the elderly and their extended family are considered co-equals and mutually independent until circumstances necessitate assistance from children and other family members.



    Understanding the Generations of Life

    Life course is an ideal sequence of events and positions the average person is expected to experience as he/she matures and moves through life. Dependence and independence levels change over the life course. In Figure 3 below, you can see that from birth to teen years, that children's' levels of dependence are relatively high and our levels of independence are relatively low. Newborns have little ability to nurture others, but as they are socialized and grow into their later-teen roles things change. By young adulthood, independence is a prime value which leads many to move out on their own and gain their own experiences (like most of you did).

    Young adult's ability to nurture is moderate, but often dormant since most pursue avenues of preparation for their adult lives rather than immediately beginning their own families.

    Married and cohabiting couples are much more independent and capable of nurturing and remain so throughout the grand-parenting years. As the life course progresses into later life, the oldest elderly begin to lose their independence as their health declines to the point that their resources lag behind the daily demands placed upon them. This is because all of us experience senescence. Senescence is the social, emotional, biological, intellectual, and spiritual processes associated with aging (


    For many in our modern societies, aging is feared, vilified, and surgically and cosmetically repaired. We do not like being “off our game” and senescence is viewed as a weakness. Yet, many elderly find their lives very satisfying. And they tend to report higher levels of self-esteem than do younger members of society. Because we tend to value youth, youthful appearance, and youthful-centered entertainment, biases appear in the US. There are in the United States many who hold deeply held biases and prejudices against the elderly. Ageism is the prejudice and discrimination against a person based on his/her chronological age.

    Ageism is a unique form of bias. One may be prejudiced against another racial group, cultural or ethnic group, or religious group while never being at risk of becoming a member of that group. Ironically, ageist people are aging right now and will be until the day they die-they are essentially biased against their own future status.

    For those who seek understanding of the elderly, there are three social theories that might help to understand the elderly and their later-life experiences. These are listed in order of their professional value by Gerontologists who study aging-related psychosocial issues.

    Continuity theory claims that older adults maintain patterns in their later years which they had in their younger years. The elderly adapt to the many changes which accompany aging using a variety of effective personal strategies they developed earlier in their life.

    For example, those who participated in outdoor activities in their younger years tend to continue to do so as older adults-although they tend to accommodate their health and fitness limitations as they deem appropriate.

    Activity theory claims that the elderly benefit from high levels of activities, especially meaningful activities that help to replace lost life roles after retirement. The key to success in later-life is staying active and by doing so resist the social pressures that limit an older person's world. (Google Robert Havighurst and Aging).

    Disengagement theory claims that as elderly people realize the inevitability of death and begin to systematically disengage from their previous youthful roles, society simultaneously prepares the pre-elderly and elderly to disengage from their roles. This was the first formal aging theory that fell short of credibility because the scientific data did not support its assumptions. There is quite a bit of support for Continuity and

    Activity Theories (see The Encyclopedia of Aging online at

    To really understand the elderly today, you have to understand the larger social changes that have transpired over the last century. Around 1900, US elderly held a more cherished place in the hearts of younger family members. Most homes were intergenerational with grandparents, parents, and children all living in the same home and more often with kin on the wife's side being the social connection around which 3 generations would live (see Dorian Apple Sweetser, 1984 “Love and Work: Intergenerational Household Composition in the U. S. in 1900” Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 46, No. 2 (May, 1984), pp. 289-293 retrieved on 18 June 2008 from

    In 2000, the US Census Bureau reported that there were 105.5 million households in the country (report C2KBR/01-8retrieved on 18 June 2008 from Table 2 reports that 3.7 percent or nearly 4 million households are multigenerational. This probably feels normal-not having older relatives live in your home. The point is that in years past elderly family members were considered a valuable asset with their wisdom and support of their children and grandchildren.

    Theorizing Later Life

    Modernization Theory claims that industrialization and modernization have lowered the power and influence which the elderly once had which has lead to much exclusion of elderly from community roles. Even though this theory is not as well established and is somewhat controversial, it has made a place in science for understanding how large-scale social forces have impacted the individual and collective lives of the elderly. In our modern societies, the economy has grown to a state that has created new levels of prosperity for most, the new technologies have outpaced the ability of the elderly to understand and use them, and the elderly are living much longer and are not essential to the economic survival of the family as was the case for millennia. Modernization can help us to understand why the elderly have become stigmatized and devalued over the last century.

    Who make up the generations of our day? Look at Figure 4 below to see birth rates and generation labels for the United States. First notice the red and blue lines. The red represents the Crude Birth Rate, the numbers of births per 1,000 population in a given year. The Blue line represents the General Fertility Rate, the numbers of live births per 1,000 women aged 15-44. Both CBR and GBRs show a pattern of birth rates that were relatively high when the World-At-War Generation was born. Birth rates declined with the Great Depression until 1946 (the commencement of the Baby Boom). The Baby Boom represented a surge in birth rates that endured from 1946-1964 and declined to pre- Boom rates in 1965. Generation X or “Gen X” represents the children of the Baby Boomers which spilled into Generation Y or the “Millennials” which by most accounts are still being born.


    The World-At-War Generation is slowly disappearing from the US population landscape.

    On the 8th of June, 2008, the last living Veteran of World War I was honored by the White House and Congress. Frank W. Buckles fought in WWI and was held prisoner in Manila during World War II (see CNN, retrieved on 19 June, 2008 from Also the US Veterans Bureau reported that there were 2,911,900 WWII veterans as of 30 September 2007 with about 900 WWII veterans passing away each day. They also reported that 39.1 percent of all US veterans were aged 65 and older (See data sheet retrieved 19 June 2008 from

    The majority of the elderly today are women. If you consider the elderly as being divided into three life stages you can discern just how the elderly are comprised comparing males to females. The Young-old are 65-74 years, the Middle-old are 75-84 years, and the Old-old are 85+ years. In 2005 there were more females in all three ages, 65-74, 75-84, and 85+. This is because women, in most countries of the world, have a higher life expectancy than men. Life expectancy is the average numbers of years a person born today may expect to live.

    The US Life expectancy today is about 80 for females and 75 for males (worldwide its 70 for females and 66 for males, see, 2007 Population Data Sheet , retrieved 19 June 2008). Life expectancies have increased dramatically over the last 50 years in the Western nations of Canada, United States, Australia, Japan, and Western Europe.

    Overall men and women can expect to live longer than they did in the 1940s-1990s.


    Data retrieved 19 June 2008 from Table 1. Resident population, by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin: United States, selected years 1950-2005 from

    The sex ratio in the quote above which was 44 for persons 58 to 89 would be interpreted as 44 males per 100 females. From I found this quote about US elderly males and females:

    “Perhaps no feature of the oldest old is as striking as their sex ratio (the number of males per 100 females), which was 39 in 1994 (982,000 males and 2.5 million females). The sex ratio in the United States was 44 for persons 85 to 89 years old, and only 26 for persons 95 to 99 years old. In comparison, the sex ratio was 82 for persons 65 to 69 years old. (retrieved 19 June 2008 from ”

    The Baby Boomers represent 78.2 million US citizens as of 1 July 2005 (see This large cohort of society's member is moving on mass into the ranks of the elderly. A cohort is a group of people who share a statistical or demographic trait such as those born between 1946-1964. Nearly 8,000 Baby Boomers turned 60 each day in 2006. The US Census estimates that 57.8 million baby Boomers will be around in 2030 after they've all retired. One issue for gerontologist is the financial strain the Baby Boomers will place on the rest of society once they are retired. Most speculate that baby Boomers will not receive the same from the Social Security Administration benefits their parents and grandparents enjoyed.

    The children of the Baby Boomers were called the Generation X children or the “Baby Bust” because they were born in post-Boom low fertility rate years. They were different from their parents. They grew up with the computer age and came to computer technology much like an immigrant comes to a new country. This cohort grew up in an economic state of greater posterity than did previous generations. Generation Y or Millennials are also called the “Internet Generation or Screenagers” because they grew up with TV, video games, cell phones, PDAs, and movie screens. Each generation is culturally distinct compared to the previous ones even though much still remains in common. There is a good chance that children of Generation Y parents will be better skilled than their parents with a technology that has not yet been invented. Such has been the case comparing the last three generations.

    In Tables 2 &3 below you see the increasing life expectancies in the US. The elderly of the future will be expected to live longer than any elderly in the history of the United States and world. Being born in the US affords the average member of society a longer life. In Table 3 below you can see that North American children are born with the higher life expectancies than other children around the world. By far, being born in Japan and Hong Kong would provide the absolute highest life expectancy at birth at 82 years for the total.

    Table 2: United States Life Expectancies
    Year Total Male Female
    1970 70.8 67.1 74.7
    1980 73.7 70.0 77.4
    1990 75.4 71.8 78.8
    2000 77.0 74.3 79.7
    2010 78.5 75.6 81.4
    2015 79.2 76.2 82.2



    Table 3: 2007 World and Regional Life Expectancies
    Region Total Male Female
    World 68 66 70
    Africa 53 52 54
    N. America 78 70 81
    L. America 73 70 76
    Asia 68 67 70
    Europe 75 71 79
    Oceania 75 73 78

    In fact all regions of the world are growing older. The developing countries are aging the fastest. Consider this screen capture and color map taken from the Population Reference Bureau World Population data Sheet 2007, Page 6.


    (Retrieved 19 June 2008 from Population Data Sheet 2007: Sources: C. Haub, 2007 World Population Data Sheet, and United Nations Population Division).

    Over the past half-century, both the worldwide drop in fertility and concurrent rise in life expectancy have led to the gradual aging of the world's population. Look at Table 4 below. Since 1950, the share of persons ages 65 and older has risen from 5 percent to 7 percent worldwide. As the map shows, Europe and Japan have led the way, with North America, Australia, and New Zealand close behind. However, older persons are now more than 5 percent of the inhabitants in many developing countries and by 2050 are expected to be 19 percent of Latin America's population and 18 percent of Asia's.

    Table 4: Worldwide Percent of Persons Ages 65 and Older
    Year 2007 2025 2050
    World 7 10 16
    Industrialized Countries 16 21 26
    Developing Countries 6 9 15
    Europe 16 21 28
    North America 12 18 21
    Oceania 10 15 19
    Latin Am. and Caribbean 6 10 19
    Asia 6 10 18
    Africa 3 4 7

    Challenges of Being Elderly and Single

    As mentioned elderly women outlive elderly men. Widowhood occurs when one's spouse dies. Widows are surviving wives and widowers are surviving husbands. As a young college student you probably don't worry about ever being a widow or widower.

    How we define death, both our own and the death of others is very much influenced by the cultural definition of death we incorporated into our own values while growing up.

    Most of us a related to someone who died in the last 24 months. It's very common for college students about your age to have lost a great aunt/uncle, great grandparent, and even a grand parent. It's not so common for you to have lost you own parent or sibling.

    Grief is the feeling of loss we experience after a death, disappointment, or tragedy. When you experience grief you are said to be in bereavement. Bereavement is the circumstances and conditions that accompany grief.

    Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her work as the stages of grief. These include, denial= “All is fine or it didn't happen,” anger=“why me?,” or, “I hate God for this,” bargaining="I'll be a better person if you (God) will just let him live,” depression=“all is lost or why try?,” and acceptance=”we'll be okay,” or, “we can get through this together” (see “On Death and Dying," 1973; Routledge Press). I've noticed that we all grieve when things disappoint us, when someone dies, or even when we break up with someone. I've seen my seniors grieve to a certain degree when they did not get into graduate school their first try. We all grieve and we all grieve in our own way. Studies show that most people experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance, but there exists some disagreement on the part about cycling through Kübler-Ross' stages in any order.

    The study of aging would not be complete without focusing on family relationships and roles. Of the over 40,000,000 (millions) of elderly in the US, about 6 million still work for pay. About 7 million were taking adult education courses. About 21 million were married and about 13 million were widowed. Only 1, 400,000 lived in nursing homes.

    About 32 million owned their homes. In the 65 plus age group there are only 73 men per 100 women (Data retrieved from US Census on 9 February, 2010 from These trends lead to some important family related issues that need to be discussed here.

    Just how the future of elderly family relationships will be in coming decades is very difficult to predict. Many elderly live single (regardless of any wishes to the contrary).

    The US Census Bureau reported that among 65+ ages there were 3,500,000 elderly single men with no spouse or partner and 10,400,000 elderly women with no spouse or partner (retrieved 10 Feb. 2010 from Table 14. Households by Type and Age of Householder 55 Years and Over: 2008). The sex imbalance among elderly single men and women is obvious. Although many single marrieds might enjoy an intimate relationship with a partner or spouse, the rewards and costs are different between men and women in these age ranges. It is true that their combined retirement incomes and living expenses might be increased together and therefore appealing to both.

    Many widows have already been through something like this with their deceased husbands. Many divorcees and never marrieds have found their life patterns to be very established and difficult if not impossible to change. Thus, many elderly remain single and have friendships and intimacies without the long-term commitments that come with cohabiting or marrying again.

    What do the trends for elderly unmarried in later life suggest to us? Quite simply more divorced and separated elderly are predicted. Figure 7 below shows the actual trends in increasing divorced elderly from 1963-2003. There are higher proportions of divorced and separated elderly now than in the past. This trend is not the same for widowhood. In other words there is only a slight increase in widowhood compared to a dramatic increase in being divorced or separated.

    Another trend which is documented in Figure 8 below is the increasing numbers of those in the pre-elderly stages of life (ages 30-64). There are increased rates of divorcing and remaining divorced. The Baby Boomers were born between 1946-1964. They turn 65 between 2011-2029. This cohort in the US has the highest documented divorce rates of any age-related cohort ever studied in the United States (See Kreider, R.M., “Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces.” Figures 1a & 1b: Percent of Men and Women Ever Divorced, Among Those Ever Married by Selected Ages, for Selected Birth Cohorts:2001. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports: P70-97 Washington D.C.).

    The numbers of elderly will nearly double by the time all the Baby Boomers reach 65 years in 2030. This leads to the conclusion that when the Baby Boomers reach age 65 ( beginning in the year 2011), the prevalence of divorced elderly will rise to an even higher level because of the sheer volume of divorced Baby Boomers who will also, for whatever reason, remain divorced into their later years.



    Not all retirement years are created equally. Figure 9 shows the income comparisons of married versus divorced elderly males and females from 1994-2004. Notice that the highest median income levels were for married males. Divorced males had the next highest levels and divorced females (represented by the orange line) came in third.

    Married females came in last, in part because this generation of elderly had a relatively high rate of traditional homemakers who have fewer Social Security retirement benefits than their husbands.

    Figure 10 shows some of the quality of life differences found in the National Longitudinal Surveys-Mature Women data set (Yes, this is an example of secondary analysis research). Elderly divorced and widowed women were more likely to still be in the labor force than married ones. Married women had the lowest levels of reported unhappiness and rarely enjoying life. Feeling sad was similar among all categories.



    Roles of Grandparents

    The role of grandparent is a socially acceptable one in the US. It is admired by others, bragged about by grandparents, and more often than not appreciated by grandchildren.

    Grandparents are given social approval by peers and society in general for being in that role. Grandparents also can be as actively or inactively involved as they desire. There are varying types of grandparental involvement and I've developed a few types just for comparison purposes here. Most US grandparents live in another household from their grandchildren. But, economic uncertainties and demographic changes with lower birth rates may contribute to the US returning to 3 or 4 generational households (see Pew Research Center: Social and demographic Trends Monday Feb. 11, 2008 “US Pop.

    The “Disneyland Grandparents” entertain and distract their grandchildren from the mundane aspects of their daily lives at home. These grandparents provide a certain entertainment option that is missing for their not-yet established parents. Grandchildren come to have high expectations of indulgence when spending time with these grandparents.

    The “Assistant Parent” grandparent is the one who takes the grandchildren to school functions, practices, and doctors appointments or waits for their grandchildren to come to their house after school and before the parents return home from work. Because the parents are typically both employed, these grandparents sometimes become an integral part of their grandchild's daily life and have an ongoing supportive role in the grandchild's busy schedule. Many young dual-employed couples could not afford the cost of formal daycare and many grandparents feel rewarded by the meaningful contribution they make in this role.

    The “Parental Substitute” grandparent is the one who lives in the home with the grandchild (or the grandchild lives in their grandparent's home). This is an older family member who is, drawing retirement, depends heavily on Medicare for their medical expenses, and is typically in declining health. These grandparents have a great deal of stress that often reminds them of the original parental stresses they faced when they were raising their own children. The Parental Substitute grandparents often express fatigue and feeling overburdened.

    Raising grandchildren is not what most grandparents anticipated to happen in their later lives. Grandparents in the US often have direct daily interaction with their grandchildren.

    The US Census Bureau estimates over 6 million grandparents do have their grandchildren living in their home (retrieved 9 Feb., 2010 from This type of grandparent is common when unwed teen mothers keep their babies, when an adult child is divorced or widowed, or when a child or son/daughter-in-law becomes disabled.

    Finally there is the “Distant Relative” grandparent. These grandparents visit at times and live at a geographic or emotional distance from their grandchildren. They typically can't or will not have a close relationship with the grandchildren. Telephones and the Internet allow these Grandparents to consult with the parents and be intermittently involved in the lives of their children and grandchildren. But, many grandchildren experiencing this type of grand parenting often report a disconnect to these grandparents.

    Grandparents can have a positive and nurturing impact on their grandchildren or they can have a shameful and negative one. Some grandparents work diligently to reinforce the value of each individual grandchild, often trying not to repeat the same mistakes they made when raising their own children. These grandparents find ways to show and express their love, support, and valuation of the grandchild.

    Other grandparents repeat the shameful patterns of parenting that they mistakenly used in their own parenting efforts. They label the grandchild and shame them as a form of control and discipline. When asked this question, “If you had to use a negative or positive symbol to portray how your Grandma or Grandpa view you, which would it be and why?”, grandchildren will indicate to some degree the nature of their relationship to their grandparents and how they perceive a low esteem that these grandparents have for them.

    Elder Abuse is a significant problem in modern US families. Just to give you a short mention of it in this chapter for you to contemplate some of the facts, while Chapter 16 will cover family violence and tragedies in more detail. Elder Abuse is the mistreatment of, violence against, and otherwise harmful manipulation of elderly persons. Marlene Lee (2009) reported that elderly abuse is too common (Retrieved 10 Feb, 2010 from She reported that fewer than 10 percent of US elderly are abused in any way and that verbal abuse was the most common form. She also reported that non-family persons accounted for more than half of all elderly abuse. When a family member was verbally abused it was more likely to be a spouse. Financial and physical abuse was more likely to be toward a child.

    This page titled 1.14: Aging and Families is shared under a CC BY 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Ron J. Hammond via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.