Science & Research

Study examines elderly population

The demographic of Americans aged 65 and over is expanding and diversifying

By
Contributing Writer

Shifting dynamics of the United States’ elderly population include increased racial and economic diversity and a more prominent role of grandparents in their families’ lives as adult children rely more on their mothers and fathers for support, according to a recent study published Nov. 6.

The report, “Diversity in Old Age: The Elderly in Changing Economic and Family Contexts,” was written by Judith Seltzer and Jenjira Yahirun and sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation’s U.S. 2010: America after the First Decade of the New Century, a project headed by Professor of Sociology John Logan.

The Russell Sage Foundation funds research on shifting trends in American society at the start of each decade around the same time the United States releases the census, Logan said.

“I thought the particular topic of aging would be very important,” because it addresses the family, a central part of American life, Logan said.

The proportion of Americans who are age 65 has tripled in size since 1900 and is expected to be one and a half times its current size by 2050, according to the study.

This trend is due in part to rising life expectancy, said Professor of Sociology Michael White, who was not involved in the study.

Old age is becoming a distinct life stage, and grandparents today have more opportunities to assume more meaningful roles in their grandchildren’s lives, according to the report.

“I can’t imagine not growing up with (my grandparents) around,” said Mikala Murad ’16, whose grandparents moved in with her, her mother and her sister when she was 3 years old. “It’s almost as if instead of being my grandparents, they are another set of parents,” she said.

Murad said that when her parents split up, she, her sister and her mother relocated with her grandparents into a bigger house.

“It was easier to pay for a house with more people there,” she said, adding that her grandparents wanted to be around to help out after her parents split.

Murad’s experience growing up with her grandparents mirrors a broader national trend.

Increasingly, the elderly are moving in with their adult children to combine family resources and save money, according to the study. This increase has accompanied  rising divorce rates and family instability during the past few decades.

As divorce rates continue to climb, there has been a lot of discussion about the alleged decline of the American family Logan said, but “my personal view is that in spite of all these challenges and changes, the family continues to be the core part of how people manage their lives.”

The study highlights wealth gaps along generation lines, White said, adding that the elderly segment of the population has gained financial stability compared to younger segments of the population.

Rising generational inequality can be attributed to the improving Social Security system and rising debt among the younger generation, according to the report.

Adult children today are increasingly dependent on their elderly parents, raising questions of whether the older generation will be able to bear the burden, Logan said. “My personal view is that, yes, they’ll carry the load because that’s what people do.”

But the report says adult children also assist their parents with physical and emotional care and, in some cases, financial support, when their parents become frailer with age.

Sophie Cohen ’16, who said her grandparents played a primary role in her upbringing, said her mother and her grandparents offer each other “different kinds of support.” Her grandparents encouraged her mother to work hard, and supporting her grandparents financially is her mother’s way of giving back.

The report also highlights the shifting demographics of the elderly population.

“Rather than simply thinking of people over the age of 65 as being one homogeneous grouping,” White said, the study underscores the idea of diversity in old age and points out the variety of circumstances that people of different demographics face.

The study revealed a wide gap in social and economic welfare between the elderly who received a college degree and those who did not. It also highlighted the rising racial diversity of the elderly due to increased immigration from Latin American and Asian countries.

“Enough time has passed since the start of (the) big waves of immigration that many of the people who came as young adults are now grandparents,” Logan said.

Extensive assessment of these immigrant groups’ the socioeconomic status in old age has not been done before and is a “new element” this study brings to the field, he said.

The report was designed to paint a portrait of the elderly population in the United States, White said. “It does a very fine job of pointing out the issue of how we need to think about intergenerational relations.”