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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 recentlythrough public entitlement programshas 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 postWorld War II years (19461964) 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.

Diversity in living arrangements

Variations in the propensity to live alone or with others are found by age, gender, race, and ethnicity. As age increases, older people are more likely to live alone or with a relative other than a spousea product of increasing widowhood rates in later life. In general, rates of coresidence with sons and daughters are higher for older women than for older men, though this differential diminishes with increasing age. Gender differences in coresidence have much to do with spouse availability patterns that are linked to widowhood. Relatively fewer older men live alone, as compared to older women, because they are less likely to be widowed. In 1990, 79 percent of men between the ages of sixty-five and seventy-four, and 70 percent of those seventy-five and older, lived with a spouse, as compared to 54 percent and 25 percent of older women in these respective age categories. However, among the unmarried, older men were 17 percent more likely than older women to coreside with a relative (84 percent for men vs. 67 percent for women).

Patterns of coresidence among older parents vary by both their own age and the gender of their adult children. The young-old (age sixty-five to seventy-five) are more likely to live with a son, while the old-old (age seventy-five to eighty-five) are more likely to live with a daughter. The preference for daughters as household partners is found particularly among women who are over age eighty and living without a spouse. This is likely due to the fact that daughters are more likely than sons to become caregivers for an older parent. Indeed, scholars have expressed some concern that fertility reductions, combined with labor-force participation among women, may limit the availability of middle-aged daughters to serve as coresident caregivers for their very old parents.

There are striking racial and ethnic differences in the living arrangements of older adults. Relatively fewer older Asian (21.2 percent) and Hispanic (27.4 percent) women live alone than older white women (41.3 percent) and African American women (40.8 percent). However, in 1998 an estimated 42 percent of older white women were coresiding with a spouse, as compared with 24 percent of older black women. Older African American women are more likely than older white women to live with other relativesa result of the higher rates of nonmarriage among African Americans. Older Hispanic women are also more likely than whites to coreside with other relatives, especially adult children. Similar coresidential patterns by race and ethnicity are found among older American men.

Differences in coresidence of the elderly by race and ethnicity have been attributed both to socioeconomic need and cultural traditions. Some evidence points to economic need as a more salient reason for coresidence in African American families, and cultural values are a more prominent reason for coresidence in Hispanic families. Asian Americans age fifty-five and older are more likely than white non-Hispanics of the same age to live with their grandchildren (21.9 percent vs. 4.5 percent). This difference has been attributed to traditional Confucian ideals of filial pietythe unquestioning obligation to respect and care for elders in old age. In addition, higher rates of marriage give Asian Americans a greater likelihood of having children and grandchildren with whom to live. Healthy and able grandparents are reported to play an active role in providing baby-sitting and housekeeping services to their coresident working adult children, saving them both time and resources.

Advantages and disadvantages of coresidence

In reviewing research on coresidence and solitary living, results show that there are both costs and rewards for older individuals. Although sharing a household enhances the ability of older adults to receive needed instrumental services, such as help with activities of daily living, it has been shown to have little relation to emotional support from family and others. Older individuals who make the transition to the household of a child or other relative tend to be in poorer health and more likely to be widowed. In addition, older people who have greater limitations in physical functioning, often in conjunction with widowhood, enhance their likelihood of coresiding with an adult child or other relative. Given these findings, it is likely that health improvements in the older population has increased their functional independence and suppressed the need to live with others.

From another point of view, independent living may produce psychological benefits for older adults. Some scholars have argued that living independently from children allows older adults to enjoy more privacy and greater autonomy. All things considered, older parents generally appear to be satisfied living with their adult children, as this arrangement enhances their experience of closeness with the coresident adult child. However, the quality of the relationship sometimes suffers when adult children especially in middle ageremain or become economically dependent on their parents.

Changing patterns in coresidence

In spite of historical increases in living alone, the large majority of elderly personsabout seven out of tenstill live with others. According to the Census Bureau's 1998 Population Reports, slightly more than half (54 percent) of the older population live with a spouse, 13 percent live with at least one relative other than a spouse, and 2 percent live with a nonrelative. However, these statistics belie recent shifts in the types of households in which older people tend to reside. There are two important historical changes in the intergenerational household circumstances of the aged: (1) generational reversals in household headship, and (2) a rise in older adults raising grandchildren.

One of the most striking changes in the residential circumstances of elderly persons is their gain of power within multigenerational households. Between 1940 and 1990, older adults cohabiting with members of other generations contributed an increasingly larger share to their total household incomes and were gradually more likely to assume household headship. Today, older parents are more likely to provide a home for their middle-aged adult children than their children are to provide a home for them. In part, this trend is due to the changing needs of the younger generation as divorce rates have accelerated. Children's marital status is a strong predictor of coresidence, as parents with unmarried adult children have an appreciably greater risk of having an adult child at home. While separated and divorced daughters are more likely than married daughters to move in with their parents, these unmarried daughters tend to offer less financial and social support, suggesting that it is the daughters' needs that precipitated the shared living arrangement.

Another growing phenomenon is the increase in the number of grandparents who raise grandchildren. In 1999, 5.6 percent of grandchildren under the age of eighteen5.5 million childrenlived with at least one grandparent, representing a 76 percent increase since 1970. It is estimated that between 10 percent and 16 percent of grandparents have had the experience of housing a grandchild for at least six months. Often, in such households, the parent is not present due to economic difficulties, divorce, or single parenthood. Between 1990 and 1994, the number of children being raised in these skipped-generation households increased by 45 percent (from 935,000 to 1,359,000). Most of these households are the product of parental characteristics, behaviors, or conditions (such as incarceration, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, divorce, mental and physical illnesses, child abuse and neglect, and HIV/AIDS) that inhibit their ability to parent effectively.

The phenomenon of grandparents coresiding with grandchildren is most common among minority group members. In 1995, 13.5 percent of African-American grandchildren were living with a grandparent or other relatives, compared with 6.5 percent of Hispanic children and 4.1 percent of white children. An estimated 30 percent of African-American grandmothers have been responsible for raising a grandchild for at least six months, compared with 10.9 percent of all grandparents. This difference is attributed to cultural values and the pooling of limited economic resources between generations. In the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, African-American grandmothers between fifty and sixty-nine years of age were 6 to 8 percent more likely than white grandmothers to live in a skippedgeneration household. At least some of this growing racial disparity has been attributed to the crack-cocaine epidemic, as well as the growth of the African American underclass in the 1980s, which resulted in grandparents (and great grandparents) being primary caregivers for grandchildren whose parents were in crisis.

Within a long-term historical framework a different picture emerges, as the recent rise in grandparent-headed households appears to be a historical anomaly. Evidence shows that over the twentieth century there was a decline in the percentage of American grandparents who coreside with their grandchildren. According to Peter Uhlenberg (2000), between 1900 and 1990 the proportion of white grandmothers sixty to sixty-nine years of age coresiding with a grandchild declined from 24 percent to 6 percent. The proportion of African-American grandmothers in the same age category who coresided with a grandchild declined from 40 percent to 17 percent over the same period. Thus, the recent upturn in grandparent-grandchild coresidence is only a slight reversal of a long-term downward trend. However, the social implications of this recent change are vast, given the sheer number of grandchildren involved, and have caused fundamental changes in family life, with grandparents increasingly being given the opportunity to serve as filial "safety nets."

The age of grandparents coresiding with grandchildren has become younger over time. Before 1980, the majority of grandparents living with grandchildren were over sixty years old, after which the majority were under sixty years of age. This trend is the result of changes in the nature and type of household structure of coresiding grandparents, with increasingly more grandparents as providers of support to others in the household. There are sometimes emotional costs for grandparents who provide extraordinary forms of care by assuming parenthood for the second time. Adopting such a role may induce distress if it is unanticipated and involuntary. Grandparents who raise grandchildren have less time for their spouses, friends, and hobbies. Fuller-Thompson and Minkler (2000) found that grandparents raising grandchildren suffer from increased psychological and physical distress when compared to grandparents who do not have grandchildren in their households. Many caregiving grandparents have adult children struggling with serious difficulties, leading to feelings of self-blame, betrayal, and helplessness, as well as accentuated experiences of physical health symptoms.


Social, economic, health, and demographic changes have influenced the propensity of elders to live alone, with culture, values, and personal preferences playing a role in the decision whether to coreside with others or to live alone. However, factors that have enhanced the propensity of the elderly to live alone, such as gains in economic resources, declining fertility, and improving health, may be mitigated by the other factors, such as increasing ethnic diversity and the growing need for housing among younger adults. As can be seen from the phenomenon of grandparents raising grandchildren, it is important to consider the needs of all generations of the family in order to fully appreciate the dynamics of coresidence among the elderly.

Sharing a residence in later life enables the exchange of crucial services within and across generations. Increases in immigration and the swelling number of minority elders may continue to fuel the recent growth in multigenerational coresidence as the fulfillment of filial responsibility. However, young and middle-aged adults may enter old age possessing fewer filial, financial, and housing resources than earlier generations, limiting their potential for coresidence and testing the resilience of older adults to adapt to changing contingencies in their informal networks.

Merril Silverstein Frances Yang

See also Gradnparenthood; Intergenerational Exchanges; Living Arrangements; Parent-Child Relationship.


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