When the topic of cohabiting comes up, it’s usually associated with the young and the restless.
But another segment of the population is increasingly sharing a bedroom while skipping the wedding vows: senior citizens.
As with many trends, it remains to be seen if senior cohabiting is beneficial, benign or benighted.
A paper by Susan L. Brown and Sayaka Kawamura at the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University sheds some light on this understudied issue.
The issue is important, they write, because “the U.S. population is aging, and older adults are less likely to be married now and in the future than in the past.”
Also, cohabitation is “accelerating among older adults,” they say. Census data show that between 2000 and 2008, the number of cohabiting persons aged 50 and older almost doubled, from 1.2 million to 2.2 million.
Before anyone asks the “So what?” question, let’s restate the merits of marriage, as they hold for elderly couples just as powerfully as they do for younger ones.
Married seniors “typically enjoy higher levels of physical and mental health” and “greater financial resources and social support” than unmarried seniors, Ms. Brown and Ms. Kawamura write in their paper, “Relationship Quality Among Cohabitors and Marrieds in Older Adulthood.”
Research already shows that married people generally fare better than cohabiters, but almost all the studies focus on young couples. What about the seniors?
Ms. Brown and Ms. Kawamura tried to answer that question through data from the 2005-2006 National Social, Life, Health and Aging Project, a sample of 3,005 persons aged 57 to 85.
They found that cohabiting seniors are as content as married seniors when it comes to emotional satisfaction, communication, physical pleasure and time spent together. But they also found four significant differences.
Senior cohabiters are less likely to live with a partner who makes “too many demands” on them: Just 23 percent of cohabiters say they live with a nag, compared to 38 percent of married seniors.
But married seniors are more likely to attend religious services regularly (37 percent vs. 7 percent) and more likely to report being “very happy” (63 percent vs. 47 percent).
And when it comes to the bottom line, one doesn’t need bifocals to see the difference: Cohabiting seniors average $283,000 in assets per couple, while married seniors have $555,000.
Still, the data do not set off alarm bells over Grandpa living with his girlfriend or Aunt Betty moving in with the nice man she met at the senior center. In sum, cohabiting looks as if it could be a long-term alternative to marriage among older adults, Ms. Brown and Ms. Kawamura write.
Some government policies, meanwhile, seem to favor cohabiting instead of marriage.
Widows who stayed home while their husbands worked must remain unmarried to keep their husbands’ hefty Social Security checks. This is a huge incentive to cohabit should love bloom again.
The “Medicaid divorce” is also well-known. In this scenario, a loving couple get a divorce to make an ill spouse poor enough for Medicaid while enabling the other spouse to preserve some of the family’s assets.
Even the Senate-passed health care reform seems to create “cohabitation bonuses,” according to a report by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation.
If two 60-year-olds, both earning $30,000, live together without being married, they can get $10,425 in health care subsidies, Mr. Rector estimates. But if the same couple is married, they cannot get any subsidy.
“Offering couples massive financial rewards on the condition they jettison their wedding vows, or decline to make them in the first place, is absurd social policy,” Mr. Rector concludes.
My observation is that as baby boomers age, they will make sure all our social institutions are tested again. Hopefully, adjustments will be made in a mature manner.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.