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Beyond “The Brady Bunch:” stepfamilies in later life

When we think about stepfamilies, images of the perennially popular TV show The Brady Bunch likely spring to mind. Young single parents unite in marriage, bringing together their children from prior unions to form a stepfamily. Mike and Carol Brady presumably lived happily ever after, with their remarriage persisting into old age and ending only upon death of one of the spouses. However, images of stepfamilies headed by older adults are relatively rare in the media. Likewise, scholarship on families in later life also overlooked stepfamilies.

To mark National Stepfamily Day on 16 September to celebrate and support stepfamilies nationwide, we discuss key findings from our recent study charting the terrain of the stepfamily landscape during older adulthood. There are two main paths to stepfamily living for elders. Some of these stepfamilies were formed earlier in the life course and have persisted for decades. Others are unions formed more recently during later life and typically involve non-resident adult children.

Family demographic trends during the second half of life suggest that stepfamilies may be increasingly common among older adults. The doubling of the gray divorce rate, which refers to divorce among persons aged 50 and older, is contributing to the rise in single older adults who are eligible to form a remarriage or cohabitation. Those whose marriage dissolve through gray divorce are more likely to repartner than those who become widowed. Unmarried cohabitation among older adults has accelerated, quadrupling from less than 1 million to 4 million persons from 2000 to 2016. Remarriage is also more common. Just 19% of older married adults were in a higher-older marriage in 1980 whereas by 2015 the share had climbed to 30%.

In short, today’s older adults are more likely to be remarried or cohabiting than were their predecessors. Regardless of whether they are remarried or cohabiting, most of these individuals have children from previous relationships, foretelling a sizable share of older adults in stepfamilies.

We drew on national data from the 2012 Health and Retirement Study to establish a portrait of stepfamilies in later life. Nearly half of middle-aged and older (i.e., aged 50+) couples with children are in stepfamilies. That is, one or both of the spouse/partners is not the biological or adoptive parent of the other’s child(ren). Most older adult stepfamilies are headed by married couples (86%), but 14% are cohabiting couples. This union type distinction is important because married and cohabiting stepfamilies are unique in their stepfamily structure. Couples in married stepfamilies more often have children together (forming a blended stepfamily), whereas cohabiting stepfamilies more often include children from both partners’ previous relationships but lack a shared child.

Family demographic trends during the second half of life suggest that stepfamilies may be increasingly common among older adults.

Married and cohabiting stepfamilies also differ across social, economic, and health  indictors. Those in married stepfamilies enjoy greater economic resources and better health, on average, compared with older adults in cohabiting stepfamilies. Still, individuals in both types of stepfamilies fare worse on these and other dimensions than their counterparts who are married and have only share biological or adopted children together. These patterns mirror those observed among younger families with children in which married two biological parent families tend to exhibit the best outcomes, followed by married stepfamilies, and lastly cohabiting stepfamilies.

Despite their social, economic, and health disadvantages, older couples in cohabiting stepfamilies report relationship quality that is comparable with that of older couples in married stepfamilies. Moreover, couple relationship quality in stepfamilies is similar regardless of whether one or both partners have children from previous relationships or whether the couple have a shared child. The negligible role of stepfamily configuration in couple relationship quality is somewhat surprising since children are a major source of relationship strain in stepfamilies. However, given that most children have grown up and left home in older stepfamilies it makes sense that stepfamily structure is not a salient factor in couple relationship quality in later life.

Stepfamilies are already commonplace among older adults and this trend is likely to grow in the coming years. Nearly half of older couples have stepchildren, meaning they are part of stepfamilies. Older stepfamily couples have fewer resources and confront more health problems than do couples without stepchildren, raising important questions about how adults in stepfamilies navigate old age. Stepchildren may be less willing to provide support or care for stepparents than biological parents. Stepparent-stepchild dynamics might create additional stress for stepfamily couples. The high prevalence of stepfamilies in later life should encourage greater research and policy attention to stepfamily functioning and its implications for health and well-being in later life.

As we celebrate National Stepfamily Day, let’s be sure to encompass all stepfamilies, young and old alike. By moving beyond the stereotypical Brady Bunch stepfamily with young parents and school-aged children, we can shine a light on stepfamilies maintained and formed during the second half of life.

Featured image credit: Multi-generation family having fun together outdoors by Monkey Business Images. Licensed image via Shutterstock.

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