Winter 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB3

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Graying of America


Patricia Tanner Nelson
Family and Child Development Specialist
University of Delaware-Newark

Who's responsible for dependent elderly? Current trends (the graying of the baby boomers, increases in the number of vulnerable "old old," and the popularity of early retirement) suggest that by the year 2000, nearly 40% of the federal budget may be consumed with aging-related programs.

How is this challenge different now than in "the good old days?" In a review of major factors contributing to the complexity of this issues, Treas and Bengstrom1 identify these major points:

  • The growing number and needs of older Americans have outpaced the growth and resources of the younger population.
    • Increased life expectancy is creating record numbers of people aged 65 and older. In less than a century, we have added 25 years to our life span. Those aged 65 and older will represent 13% of the population in 2000, and about 21% of the population in 2030. The group expected to grow most rapidly in the next 30 years is the one aged 85 years and older. Advances in medicine allow people today to die in "small increments of debility."
    • Today's elders have fewer children than did their ancestors. Families may be taxed to their limit in providing elderly dependent care because younger adults will have fewer siblings with whom to share the caregiving responsibilities.
  • Caregiving continues to be a core part of adult children's perception of their responsibility to parents. The main functions families perform are:
    • Direct Caregiving. As elders become more dependent, families are the primary providers of services such as transportation, assistance with daily living, and to a lesser extent, housing and economic support.
      • Women have always been the major care providers for aging relatives. Complicating this today is the fact that most middle-aged women also are employed full-time.
      • The caregiving situation may involve a considerable amount of stress for the caregiver and their family, and may not necessarily contribute to an increased quality of life for the elder.
    • Social and Psychological Support. Families are invaluable for helping elders negotiate through the bureaucratic red-tape associated with medical care, changes in housing locations, etc.
      • If they have good health and adequate financial resources, the elderly prefer to live independently, yet near enough to their children that they can have regular contact.2
      • Surveys show that elders report a high degree of interaction with their immediate family members. Children of elderly widows (especially daughters) have the highest amount of interaction with their parents. Of all the help they get from their children, elders seem to value most the social and psychological support.
  • Public policy issues relating to aging are likely to receive increasing attention. According to Treas and Bengstrom:
    • It has been suggested that, as long as social policy in the United States continues to give only lip service to family policy that would help the elderly (as well as their primary caretakers, spouses, and "women in the middle"), all generations are at risk, for their health and well-being are interlocked....Decrements associated with aging-loss of spouse, job, health, and the capacity for independent living-place special demands on family relations. These demands may be manifested in guilt, friction, and feelings of inadequacy for old and young alike. If the familial demands of later life are more sorely felt or more openly acknowledged today than in the past, it may be because aging kin have become more commonplace. It may also be because Americans have come to accept that the welfare of older citizens is no longer merely a private concern, but also a public responsibility.3
  • An examination of the research leads some to conclude that social and psychological support may be the most valuable assistance provided to elders by their families. If this is true, Extension may play a major role in addressing the challenge of caring for dependent elderly. Through research-based educational programming, families can have (1) greater understanding of the aging process and normal intergenerational family stresses, (2) increased skills in identifying services in their community that can aid in supporting family elders, and (3) skills that will allow them to participate more effectively in formulating public policy relating to senior citizens. The potential audience is large. More middle-aged adults today have elderly parents alive than ever before in history.

The Kellogg Foundation has recently funded the National Center of Extension Gerontology at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. This has great promise, particularly if it's used to expedite the development of a national electronic database of research findings and program and evaluation tools so that each state in our system will have access and can contribute to up-to-the-minute information on this important topic.


1. J. Treas and V. L. Bengstrom, "The Family in Later Years,"Handbook of Marriage and the Family , M. K. Sussman and S. K. Steinmetz, eds. (New York: Plenum Press,1987), pp. 625-48.

2. E. Shanas and M. Sussman, eds., Family, Bureaucracy and the Elderly (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1981) and A. Thorton and D. Freeman, "The Changing American Family," Population Bulletin, XLI (No. 1, 1983).

3. Ibid.