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When aging policies can’t keep up with aging families

The very look and feel of families today is undergoing profound changes. Are public policies keeping up with the shifting definitions of “family”? Moreover, as the population ages within these new family dynamics, how will families give or receive elder care? Below, we highlight just a few social changes that are affecting the experiences of aging families.

Divorces and remarriages

Divorces are no longer just for young couples. The divorce rate for longtime marriages has doubled since 1990 and tripled among those 65 and older – the wave of so-called “gray divorce” which is sure to grow in the decades ahead. Divorce has a profound impact on finances for both men and women, though women usually face larger economic setbacks, especially if they have had limited workforce involvement. For both men and women, divorce strains or can eliminate retirement savings. For men, divorce often takes a significant toll on relationships with children and other family members, which can also weaken social networks and care in later life. Remarriage, too, creates blended families and ambiguous or ambivalent responsibilities, especially when it comes to the support and care of stepchildren and stepparents.

Grandparents raising grandchildren

Public policy has not kept up with the rapidly increasing number of grandparents, especially grandmothers, who are primary caregivers to one or more of their grandchildren. In the last major census (2010), 5.8 million children under the age of 18 were living in households headed by grandparents, almost 8 percent of all children. More than 2.6 million of these children are the exclusive responsibility of their grandparents. These living situations require significant sacrifices on the grandparents, as a family crisis is usually the reason this responsibility was accepted. Programs in some states provide a full range of service to aid grandparents, such as preschool child care, foster care training, mental health counseling, and therapy. Other states use block grant programs to provide cash, food stamps, and free or low-cost day care to help grandparents. Paradoxically, many of these grandparents are too young to meet the age eligibility threshold of the Family Caregiver Support Program because they must be at least age 55. According to the US Census, 69 percent of grandparents who are completely responsible for their grandchildren are not yet 50 and about 19 percent are under age 40.

Minority and immigrant families

Public policies are also out of sync with the realities faced by minority and immigrant families. Minority participation in formal care settings, such as skilled nursing centers, is low due to many factors – not only to cost, but also to cultural expectations that elders are to be cared for by their children. Indeed, older minorities have strong expectations of family support and may not make financial plans with anything other than this outcome in mind. However, as more minority and immigrant women enter the workforce, this expectation may not be realistic in the coming decades.

Same-sex couples and families

In the last few years, public policies for same-sex couples and their families rapidly evolved in the United States, culminating in the landmark June 2015 Supreme Court decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. This ruling should guarantee same-sex couples in all states the right to marry and have their marriages recognized. We have much to learn about what these changes mean for how same-sex couples will plan for or experience later life. In addition, having legal status and recognition are not the same as having social status and recognition, especially in a country like the United States, for which gay marriage has been such a volatile political and social issue.

Singlehood/childlessness and prolonged parenting

Single Americans are at an historic high in the United States, with non-married adults over the age of 25 making up about 20 percent of the adult population in 2012, compared to just nine percent in 1960. Many will also not have children, whether inside or outside of marriage. Indeed, Millennials do not feel the same need to marry and to have children that their parents did. In this respect, they save the government money because there are fewer children to educate. However, there are also fewer people to support Social Security funding in the future. Many parents with adult children are supporting their children financially through their 20s and 30s. It remains to be seen what this extended support will mean for the long-term resources and options of parents as they approach retirement.


As family configurations become more complex and nuanced, so too, should our policies that address the needs, care, and support of aging families. Whether that means adapting current policies to fit reality or creating new ones, these circumstances should be studied more closely to fully understand how public policy can facilitate the care and integration of aging families now and in the future.

Featured image credit: Photo by dassel. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay

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