Later Life Families

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Later Life Families

Similar to their younger counterparts, families in later life experience both change and continuity. In addition to retirement, grandparenthood, and changing intergenerational relationships, members of later life families experience marital transitions, the onset of health problems, and changes in marital satisfaction and sexual relationships as well as emerging needs for the caregiving of older family members. Race, ethnicity, class, country of origin, age, and sexual orientation combine to further augment the diversity of experience within the family in later life.

Defining Later Life Families

Timothy Brubaker (1983; 1990) suggests that later life families are delineated by the fact that they have completed the child-rearing stage. In contrast, Ingrid Connidis (2001) asserts that definitions of the later life family should allow for the diversity of individual experience by focusing on familial relationships rather than a particular life-course stage or chronological age. Connidis (2001) points out that older childless couples do not fit Brubaker's definition of the later life family. Similarly, age is not always an accurate means of defining later life families as individuals may become grandparents in their twenties and thirties (Burton and Bengtson 1985). Undoubtedly, the term family implies a different set of meanings and relationships for each individual (Holstein and Gubrium 1999). Victoria Bedford and Rosemary Blieszner (1997) offer the most helpful means of defining later life familial relationships as they state:

A family is a set of relationships determined by biology, adoption, marriage, and, in some societies, social designation and existing even in the absence of contact or affective involvement, and, in some cases, even after the death of certain members (526). Thus, familial relationships derive from biologically and socially defined relationships that transcend the finality of death and the exclusiveness of blood and marital kinship relationships.

Characteristics of Later Life Families

Brubaker (1990) notes that later life families are characterized by the presence of three, four, and even five generations. Family structures with four or five generations but relatively few people in each generation are referred to as beanpole families (Bengtson, Rosenthal, and Burton 1990). Families in which successive generations have children at an earlier age, resulting in smaller age differences between the generations, are referred to as agecondensed families. In contrast, families in which successive generations delay childbearing, resulting in larger age differences between the generations, are referred to as age-gapped families. The number of individuals in each generation—as well as the age differences between the generations—influences familial relationships in later life. For example, the beanpole family structure is associated with the concept of the sandwich generation, in which the middle generation, particularly women, experiences simultaneous demands to care for aging relatives and dependent children. The burden experienced by the sandwich generation is augmented by the lack of family members with whom caregiving tasks may be shared. Although it is thought to be the most common family form, Peter Uhlenberg (1993) states that the prevalence of the beanpole family structure has been exaggerated. Carolyn Rosenthal (2000) points out that relatively few women experience being sandwiched between the competing demands of their parents and children. Rosenthal (2000) asserts that daughters are more likely to be providing active help to their aged parents when they themselves are older and their children have been launched, thus there is a decreased likelihood of having conflicting roles. Nevertheless, smaller or larger age differences between the generations may influence the nature and duration of intergenerational relationships as well as the type and extent of help and care exchanged between the generations.

At the same time, family structures in later life vary as a result of social, demographic, and cultural differences. Although longevity continues to increase around the world, there are notable distinctions between developed and developing countries as well as between men and women. For example, the World Health Organization (2000) reports that healthy life-expectancy rates range from approximately 75 years in Japan to less than 26 years in Sierra Leone. Women tend to outlive men by seven or eight years in developed countries, whereas men and women have similar life expectancy rates in developing countries (World Health Organization 2000). Life-expectancy differences have an impact on later life familial relationships such that in some countries three- and four-generation families are more common than in others. With increasing longevity, later life becomes a normative life-course stage. In contrast, in some developing countries low life expectancy renders the experience of later life less common and the definition of old age is much younger than in developed countries (Albert and Cattell 1994). Moreover, differing cultural values lead to diversity in norms surrounding old age and intergenerational relations. In some countries, such as Japan and China, older relatives hold a special place of honor in the family and there are strong social norms that dictate that adult children provide care and shelter for aged family members (Thorson 2000).

Despite differences in family structure, later life families tend to share another characteristic identified by Timothy Brubaker (1990), namely family history. Brubaker (1990) points out that later life families have a long and rich "reservoir of experience." As well as having well-established patterns of interactions, later life families may also be characterized by "unfinished business or tensions" (Brubaker 1990, p. 16) arising from events that happened earlier in the family's history.

Couple Relationships in Later Life

With increased longevity and barring divorce or separation, married and common-law couples can expect to be together into their later years. Relatively few older adults are either never married or divorced (Choi 1996). Although they are becoming increasingly visible and socially accepted, older lesbian and gay couples are also a minority. In contrast, most older adults are either currently married or widowed. Marriage has been found to have positive effects on the well-being of individuals in later life. Indeed, married individuals report greater well-being than never-married, divorced, separated, or widowed individuals (Mastekaasa 1994). However, at all stages of the marital relationship, men report higher levels of satisfaction and a greater sense of well-being than women.

In addition to gender differences, there are also differences in marital satisfaction in later life related to race, ethnicity, and nationality. For example, one study found that in the United States, African-American adults tend to report lower levels of marital satisfaction across the life-course than white adults (Adelmann, Chadwick, and Baerger 1996). In another study, Mexican-American women experienced greater declines in marital satisfaction over the life-course than did Mexican-American men (Markides et al. 1999). Ed Diener, Carol Gohm, Eunkook Suh, and Shigehiro Oishi (2000) compared marital satisfaction across forty-two different countries. They define collectivist countries, such as China, South Korea, and Nigeria, as nations that tend to have strong norms about marriage, conformity, and supporting in-group members. Individualist countries, such as the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, place greater emphasis on individual rights, attitudes, and choices. Diener and his colleagues (2000) found that although individuals derive greater satisfaction from marriage than cohabitation in collectivist countries, the relationship between marital status and subjective well-being is relatively similar cross-nationally.

Couples in later life experience a number of transitions as children leave home, individuals retire, and grandchildren are born. Previous research has suggested that marital satisfaction tends to follow a U-shaped curve with the highest levels of marital satisfaction reported in the beginning and later stages of the relationship and declines in marital satisfaction during the middle (and usually parental) years. Following the launching of adult children, couples may have more time to spend with each other, more privacy, and more financial resources. The bond between couples in later life may be enhanced by a lifetime of shared history and experiences. Some researchers have found that increased marital satisfaction in later life is largely explained by decreases in parenting and work responsibilities stemming from the launching of adult children and the transition to retirement (Orbuch et al. 1996). Similarly, Barbara Mitchell and Ellen Gee (1996) note that the return of adult children to the home following initial launching has a potentially negative impact on marital satisfaction. The presence of adult children in the home may augment existing marital tensions, particularly in the case where the parents are in a second marriage or in poor health. Returning adult children may also result in decreased marital satisfaction in cases where the adult child has made three or more departures from and returns to the family home. However, Mitchell and Gee (1996) found that strong relationships between mothers and adult children are associated with fewer declines in marital satisfaction following the return of the adult child.

Later research on the U-shaped pattern of marital satisfaction across the life-course has generated conflicting findings. One longitudinal study found that marital satisfaction tends to decline over time "with the steepest declines in marital happiness occurring during the earliest and latest years of marriage" (VanLaningham, Johnson, and Amato 2001, p. 1313). In other words, they did not find any evidence of increases in marital satisfaction following the launching of adult children or the transition to retirement. Defining a lack of success in terms of marriages that ended in divorce or that were reported as being less than happy, Norval Glen's (1998) study of marital success also rebutted the U-shaped model of marital satisfaction. Glen's (1998) research suggests that differences in marital success across the life-course are due to cohort differences. Glen also contends that declines in marital success may be due to personal and health characteristics that occur over time and that serve to make couples less compatible or less well-matched.

Another way of examining marital satisfaction and marital quality in later life is in terms of conflict. Older couples have been found to have a decreased potential for marital conflict and an increased potential for deriving pleasure from their children and grandchildren, from shared activities, and from shared aspirations and vacations (Levensen, Carstensen, and Gottman 1993). In addition, older couples tend to be less emotionally negative and more affectionate in their resolution of conflict than their middle-aged counterparts (Carstensen, Gottman, and Levensen 1995). Thus, older couples may have developed strategies for avoiding conflict as well as resolving differences in a more amiable manner. Older couples' shared and long-term histories may serve to further strengthen their bonds as well as buffering the negative impact of marital tension and conflict.

Retirement and Couple Relationships

Retirement is one of the most significant changes that face later life families. As has been stated above, the U-shaped pattern of marital satisfaction suggests that retirement may enhance satisfaction with the marital relationship. However, the process of transition from employment to retirement may pose a difficult challenge to many couples. During the transition stage, both husbands and wives tend to describe losses in marital quality (Moen, Kim, and Hofmeister 2001). The timing of retirement may be a source of marital conflict as well as the result of negotiation between the spouses. Deborah Smith and Phyllis Moen (1998) report that the husband's decision to retire is more likely to influence the timing of the wife's retirement than the other way round. Couples in which one partner retires while the other continues to work tend to experience greater marital discord, regardless of gender (Moen, Kim, and Hofmeister 2001).

Upon retirement, couples may spend more time together, which will either enhance the marital relationship or lead to increased conflict. There are gender differences in the perception of marital conflict and satisfaction following retirement. Maximiliane Szinovacz and Anne Schaffer (2000) state that husbands—but not wives—tend to perceive a decrease in the number of "heated arguments" following the retirement of the wife. The retirement of the husband is associated with an increase in calm discussions about conflictual issues in relationships where the spouses are strongly attached to the marriage. In contrast, the retirement of the husband may culminate in a decrease in calm discussions where one or both of the spouses are not strongly attached to the marriage.

Unlike their younger counterparts, the majority of today's older women did not work outside the home. Thus, the retirement of the husband and his increased presence in the home may result in a wife's sense that she has lost personal freedom and autonomy (Rosenthal and Gladstone 1994). The retirement of one or both spouses may necessitate the negotiation of personal space and domestic duties. Although the wife may have been primarily responsible for domestic tasks, following retirement there is often a lessening of a traditional gendered division of labor (Szinovacz 2000). In addition to increasing the amount of time spent on their own chores, retired spouses tend to spend more time doing tasks formerly designated the responsibility of the other spouse. Nevertheless, wives continue to spend a significantly greater amount of time on household labor than do husbands. The division of domestic labor following retirement has been found to be related to marital satisfaction. Couples who divide household chores more equitably tend to report higher levels of marital satisfaction than couples who adhere to more traditional definitions of gender roles and behavior (Rosenthal and Gladstone 1994).

Sexuality in Later Life

Benjamin Schlesinger (1996) asserts that older adults are often perceived as being asexual. Indeed, the sexual behavior of older adults is frequently assumed to be nonexistent, funny, physically risky, embarrassing, or less satisfying and exciting. In reality, sexuality continues to be an important part of couple relationships in later life. However, sexual activity tends to decline with age as a result of changing health levels, the loss of partners, the declining interest of husbands, and the effects of prescription medications. At the same time, definitions of sexual behavior in later life expand beyond sexual intercourse as older adults refer to "kissing, touching, caressing, holding hands, and hugging" (Neugebauer-Visano 1995, p. 22) as important elements of sexual activity. In this way, sexual intercourse is only one facet of the sexual expression of couples in later life.

Sexual interest and activity have been found to be contributors to marital satisfaction and wellbeing in later life (Ade-Ridder 1995). Couples who report higher levels of sexual activity tend to describe their marriages as being happier than those in which sexual activity has declined. Levels of sexual activity in later life vary by gender, education, age, and marital status (Matthias et al. 1997). Older men report higher levels of sexual activity than older women. The strongest predictors of being sexually active for men are being younger and well-educated. In contrast, the strongest predictor of being sexually active among older women is marital status: married women tend to report higher levels of sexual activity than single older women.


Grandparenthood is a role that most people will experience in their lifetimes. Maximiliane Szinovacz (1998) notes that most people become grandparents in middle age rather than in later life. Thus, grandparents in later life will tend to have grandchildren who are in their teenage and young adult years (Connidis 2001). Women and members of ethnic minorities tend to become grandparents at earlier stages in their lives than men and Caucasians (Thorson 2000). Due to differences in life expectancy, the length of relationships between grandparents and grandchildren vary between developed and developing countries (Albert and Cat-tell 1994). Although grandparenthood is a lengthy life-course stage in developed countries, lower life expectancies in developing countries mean that grandparents and grandchildren will share fewer years together. Similarly, the longer life expectancies of women as compared to men result in grandchildren being more likely to have living grandmothers, particularly maternal grandmothers, than living grandfathers (Thorson 2000). With the growing rates of divorce both among the middle and later generations, step-grandparenthood is becoming increasingly common and roughly one-quarter of all grandparents will become step-grandparents (Thorson 2000). Finally, great-grandparenthood is becoming increasingly common and approximately one-quarter of older men and one-third of older women will have great-grandchildren (Rosenthal and Gladstone 1994).

The relationships that grandparents share with their grandchildren vary by age and gender (Connidis 2001). When grandchildren are younger, grandparents tend to be more involved in their lives. Contact between grandparents and grandchildren tends to decrease once the grandchildren reach their teenage years. Similarly, grandmothers tend to provide more emotional support, whereas grandfathers tend to give their grandchildren more instrumental support such as advice and financial assistance. Although they participate in relatively few activities with either of their grandparents, adult grandchildren spend more time with their grandmothers than with their grandfathers (Roberto and Stroes 1995). Grandmothers tend to report greater satisfaction with their relationships with their grandchildren than do grandfathers (Thomas 1995). Moreover, grandparents tend to perceive their relationships with grandchildren as being closer than do grandchildren (Connidis 2001). Regardless of the differences deriving from age and gender, grandparents play a stabilizing role in the family as they provide a sense of continuity for the younger generations.

Marital Transitions: Widowhood, Divorce and Remarriage

Among today's older adults, the death of a spouse is the typical way a marital relationship ends. Given that women tend to outlive men and to marry men who are the same age or older than themselves, women continue to be much more likely than men to be widowed (Connidis 2001). Approximately two-thirds of women aged 80 and over are widowed. In contrast, the majority of men aged 80 and over is married.

The loss of a spouse is among the most stressful life events that an individual will experience (Martin-Matthews 1991). Although widowhood is an "expectable life event" for older women, "the duration of the spouse's final illness and forewarning of the death" (Martin-Matthews 1991, p. 21) shape a widow's experience of the loss of her husband. Widowhood tends to be preceded by a period of time in which men and women provide care for their ailing spouse, usually the wife caring for the husband (Wells and Kendig 1997). Undoubtedly, the stress and anguish associated with the care of a failing spouse may account for the declines in marital satisfaction in later life (VanLaningham, Johnson, and Amato 2001). At the same time, Helena Lopata (2000) notes that an individual's experience of widowhood is shaped by the cultural importance given to marriage. In developing countries where women have less power and access to resources and where they derive social status and security from their husbands, widows may face financial and social adversity in addition to profound feelings of grief and loss.

Although remarriage following the death of a spouse in later life is uncommon, more men remarry than do women. Carolyn Rosenthal and James Gladstone (1994) suggest that the primary motivations for remarrying in later life are the desire for companionship and the wish to feel useful and able to contribute to another person's happiness. The higher remarriage rates of men may be due to the greater number of potential marriage partners (O'Bryant and Hansson 1995). Similarly, the overall low rates of remarriage among older men and women are due to fears of social disapproval, financial concerns, and the opposition of other family members (O'Bryant and Hansson 1995). Maria Talbott's (1998) study of attitudes towards remarriage reveals that older women are reluctant to remarry because they do not want to give up their freedom, they are not interested in establishing a new sexual relationship, they do not want to go through the loss of another husband, they fear the reactions of their children, they feel that it would be disloyal to their deceased husband, and/or they do not want to take on additional domestic responsibilities.

Divorce among later life couples continues to be rare, although the rates are increasing. Laurie Hatch (2000) notes that divorce in later life may be more disruptive to an individual's life than widowhood. Unlike widowhood, divorce in later life is unexpected and is often accompanied by a sense of social stigma. Charles Hennon (1995) states that divorced older adults report lower life satisfaction and physical well-being than do their widowed counterparts. William Aquilino (1994) reports that couples who divorce in later life tend to have less contact and poorer quality relationships with their adult children. The relationships between adult children and fathers tend to be more negatively impacted by later life divorce than the relationships between adult children and mothers.

Although later life divorce is rare, divorce among the younger generations is not uncommon. Older adults whose children divorce may feel caught in the middle between their biological offspring and their sons- and daughters-in-law. Depending upon custody arrangements, grandparents may have increased or decreased access to their grandchildren following the divorce of the middle generation. For example, should the grandchildren be placed in the primary custody of their mother, the paternal grandparents may see their grandchildren less often.


Later life families experience both change and continuity through marital, familial, social, and work transitions. At the same time, each individual's experience and definition of what constitutes the later life family and familial relationships varies. Despite the differences that derive from gender, race, class, country of origin, and the numerous transitions they encounter, families in later life are both adaptive and resilient.

See also:Caregiving: Formal; Caregiving: Informal; Childlessness; Death and Dying; Divorce: Effects on Couples; Elder Abuse; Elders; Filial Responsibility; Grandparenthood; Grief, Loss, and Bereavement; Intergenerational Relations; Marital Quality; Retirement; Sandwich Generation; Sexuality in Adulthood; Substitute Caregivers; Widowhood


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