Challenges Facing Seniors Today Compared to Generations Before

Today’s seniors will agree: it’s true that grandparents in the 1950s never had to text their kids. More often, they shouted (loudly probably) out the door for the kids to come home or simply waited for twilight when they would come in.

Seniors in the 1950s were in their golden years. Often having a pension plan to retire on, they were able to enjoy their later years in a home they had paid off, children close by, and friends all over town. As their health deteriorated, many moved in with their kids who acted as de facto caregivers.

But as time changed, so did the way seniors lived. The 1970s and 1980s brought increasing miles between family members, and new changes in the ways they worked, how they communicated, and the things they did for fun.

While today’s seniors might see those years as more easy going, there are as many benefits as there are challenges in being a senior today. For one thing, there are more seniors than ever.

“We have to appreciate that people are living longer, healthier lives,” says Daniel Kaplan, PhD, assistant professor of social work at Adelphi University and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of Social Work in Health and Aging. With so many people comes many experiences, he says, and the general definition of a senior can actually span decades of varying ages. “We are redefining the experience of aging, in terms of work, volunteering, health, recreation, intellectual pursuits, and social engagement.”

With a burgeoning population, housing and care are two pressing issues for both logistics and economics.

“The elderly used to be able to rely on adult children to be caregivers,” says Deborah Merrill, PhD, professor of sociology at Clark University and author of When Your Children Marry: How Marriage Changes Relationships with Sons and Daughters.

Families often had more children and the majority of daughters didn’t work outside the home in the 1960s, so assistance was generally readily available, says Merrill. The arrangement positively helped seniors who could get care and didn’t have to worry about the high cost of retirement housing.

The focus on family shifted as adult children moved away. “People today are much less likely to live near their children unless they move to be near them,” says Merrill.

With the distance, families spend less time together. More women in the workforce mean fewer family caregivers. Changing living arrangements include assisted living and long-term care facilities.

Many generations living under one roof was once much more common, says Merrill, but it wasn’t always what people wanted. Some situations were downright unpleasant. “Maybe they didn’t get along,” says Merrill, “but family is family and they just dealt with it.”

Because of that shift, the economic picture for seniors is decidedly different than it used to be and can have a huge impact on the lives of those who struggle financially into the later years, says Kaplan. Generations ago, not many people in their 70s held down full-time jobs, but today many do, some by choice and some out of necessity.

If families are living greater distances apart, seniors are learning to form their own supportive family-like groups. Today’s seniors are likely to be engaged in diverse social activities and advocate for senior issues. “These vibrant, capable, healthy, wise older adults can be mobilized in society in ways that have never been done,” says Kaplan.

Even the divorce rate, higher for today’s seniors than ever before, brings new changes to seniors’ social lives. While later divorces can cause financial hardship for many women in their later years, many men and women are venturing enthusiastically into a robust dating scene that wasn’t part of previous generations.

Moving families continue to change the landscape, but the incredible advances in technology mean it’s easier to keep in touch with family and friends and safer to live independently. Family members who can’t pop in for a cup of coffee can enjoy steady communication through calls, texts, email, or even FaceTime. And some families even have connected security and health devices, Facebook or other web-based accounts to keep in touch and stay connected.

Today’s seniors might not have the same life experiences as seniors of 40 or 60 years ago, but a world of opportunity for better health, greater social interaction, and staying connected with loved ones is forging a new path.

Want to learn more about the future of family caregiving? Read the report here.

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