by Chalea Marker

My grandparents have always been role models to me, especially of what it means to have a strong marriage. My maternal grandparents taught me that no matter what, it is important to not give up on each other. They had some challenges in their marriage that tested it to the limit, yet they always stayed committed to working things out. My paternal grandparents have also shown me what it means to love your spouse. They had many adventures together. They taught me that the only way to find real joy in a marriage relationship is by being unified in purpose and loyalty. My grandparents’ example gave me strength to commit to my own marriage. They provided a strong foundation on which my parents, and now my husband and I, can build our families.

You may also have someone who provides an example to you of stable family life. Imagine what would happen if your role model abandoned his values in pursuit of self-indulgence. What would you do? A study done by Pew Research shows that cohabiting rates are rising among people ages 50 and older. According to the study, 23% of cohabiters in 2016 were 50 years old or older. This is a 75% increase from 2007 (2.3 million to 4 million people). These surprising statistics lead many to wonder why older couples are cohabiting and what the implications of this trend are.

An article published by the New York Times provides some insight into these inquiries. Since the 1990s, divorce rates among Baby Boomers has almost doubled. According to sociologist Deborah Carr, “People who’ve divorced have a more expansive view of what relationships are like. The whole idea of marriage as the ideal starts to fade, and personal happiness becomes more important.” Many Baby Boomers feel lonely after a divorce, but are not looking to get entangled in the webs of a committed relationship. Rather than dealing with the financial complications of another divorce, cohabiting couples get the benefits of living with someone without the possible sticky situations that come with commitment.

Another reason that older couples are cohabiting is because it is economical. Each partner can receive benefits from the government, which would be unavailable to the couple if they married. Couples who cohabitate also feel more independent than when they were married, including more financially independent. Elderly couples have a high risk of poverty, but when two elderly partners join their resources, there is more than enough to provide for the needs of both partners.

Elderly cohabiting couples also help each other to maintain good health. Along with combating loneliness and providing partners with a sense of intimacy, partners that live together help each other to stay healthy. They encourage each other to keep in good shape, engage in preventative treatments, and visit their healthcare providers when things get serious. If things do take a turn for the worse, each partner has in-home help in the form of a partner.

            Although there are multiple benefits for elderly cohabiting couples, there are also drawbacks to living together. Elderly couples who cohabitate tend to have more strained relationships with their children. It is not yet clear as to why this occurs. It is possible that children of elderly cohabiting couples feel neglected as the couple has to split time between both partner’s families. It is also possible that the children of these couples feel that their parent is betraying their ex-spouse, or that they are not living principles that were established when the child was younger. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the cohabitation of older couples puts a strain on their relationship with their grown children.

This trend also brings up the question of long-term care. In a marriage relationship, people feel committed to caring for an aging spouse. However, there is no social pressure to do so in a cohabiting relationship. Although many partners choose to take responsibility for their aging partner, what happens to those whose partner leaves when their health takes a turn for the worse. Children may be out of the picture as caregivers, due to time, money, and previously discussed relationship strains. If this trend continues, the younger generations may need to take on even more of the responsibility to care for the older generation by contributing to federal programs set up to benefit the elderly.

While the impact of elderly cohabitation is not fully known, it can’t possibly help a younger generation with problems forming committed relationships when the older generation is likewise avoiding commitment. They begin to see cohabitation not as a step towards marriage, but as an acceptable substitute for it. After all, if Grandma is doing it, how can it be wrong?

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