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Introduction to Sociology

Ron Hammond, Paul Cheney, Raewyn Pearsey

Chapter 12 - Aging

What Is Gerontology?

The United States of America is inhabited by many diverse people, including distinguishable generations of society's members based on age. Gerontology is the scientific study of the processes and phenomena of aging and growing old. The definition of being elderly varies. For example, the government typically sets 65 to be the elderly years, the American Association of Retired Persons finds 55 to be the eligible age of membership, and many elderly define their 70's or 80's as the time they begin to feel elderly. Gerontology is multi-disciplinary with medical and biological scientists, social scientists, and even financial and economic scientists all studying the processes of aging from their discipline's point of view.

Social Gerontology is the sociological sub field of gerontology which focuses on the nonphysical and social aspects of aging. Sociology focuses on the broad understanding of the elderly experience, their health, their emotional and social wellness, and their quality of life, just to mention a few. How many elderly lived in the US in 2014?

Table 1: Numbers and Percent of United States Population Aged 65 and Over 2014*
US Elderly 15-64 Years old ≤ 14 years of Age United States Total
46,179,004 210,911,644 61,801,455 318,892,103
14.48% 66.14% 19.38% 100%
*Estimates retrieved 21 May 2014 from SOURCE

The future growth of the US elderly population is immense in comparison to previous Census tabulations and growth rates. In Figure 1 below you see tremendous growth in the United States where the elderly now comprise only 1 in 8 members of US society, but in 2050 will comprise 1 in 5. In Figure 2 below you can see that the oldest old, 85 years and older, is also growing rapidly. This means that in general more people are living longer. In fact there are more centenarians than ever before. A Centenarian is a living person who has had their 100 birthday. US Census counts indicated about 37,000 centenarians in 1990 and about 50,000 in 2000 (Retrieved 28 May 2014 from SOURCE).

In many societies the elderly are revered (especially Asian societies). Filial Piety is the value, respect, and reverence of one's elderly which is often accompanied by care giving and support of the elderly. In Western countries, the elderly and their extended family are considered co-equals and mutually independent until circumstances necessitate assistance from children and other family members.

Figure 1: Estimated percentage of US population that will be Elderly and Non-Elderly, 2000-2050*.
*Estimates retrieved 21 May 2014, Vincent, Grayson K. and Victoria A. Velkoff, 2010, THE NEXT FOUR DECADES, The Older Population in the United States: 2010 to 2050, Current Population Reports, P25-1138, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC.
Figure 2: Estimated percentage of US population that will be 65-84 and over 85, 2000-2050*.
*Estimates retrieved 21 May 2014, Vincent, Grayson K. and Victoria A. Velkoff, 2010, THE NEXT FOUR DECADES, The Older Population in the United States: 2010 to 2050, Current Population Reports, P25-1138, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC.

Understanding the Generations of Life

A Life Course is an ideal sequence of events and positions the average person is expected to experience as he/she matures and moves through life. Dependence and independence levels change over the life course. In Figure 3 below, you can see that from birth to teen years, that children's levels of dependence are relatively high and our levels of independence are relatively low. Newborns have little ability to nurture others, but as they are socialized and grow into their later-teen roles things change. By young adulthood, independence is a prime value which leads many to move out on their own and gain their own experiences (like most of you did).

A young adult's ability to nurture is moderate, but often dormant since most pursue avenues of preparation for their adult lives rather than immediately beginning their own families. Married and cohabiting couples are much more independent and capable of nurturing and remain so throughout the grand-parenting years. As the life course progresses into later life, the oldest elderly begin to lose their independence as their health declines to the point that their resources lag behind the daily demands placed upon them. This is because all of us experience senescence. Senescence is the social, emotional, biological, intellectual, and spiritual processes associated with aging.

Figure 3: Diagram of Dependence and Independence Over the Life Course
© 2009 Ron J. Hammond, Ph.D.

For many in our modern societies, aging is feared, vilified, and surgically and cosmetically repaired. We do not like being "off our game" and senescence is viewed as a weakness. Yet, many elderly find their lives very satisfying. And they tend to report higher levels of self-esteem than do younger members of society. Because we tend to value youth, youthful appearance, and youthful-centered entertainment, biases appear in the US. There are, in the United States, many who hold deeply held biases and prejudices against the elderly. Ageism is the prejudice and discrimination against a person based on his/her chronological age.

Ageism is a unique form of bias. One may be prejudiced against another racial group, cultural or ethnic group, or religious group while never being at risk of becoming a member of that group. Ironically, ageist people are aging right now and will be until the day they die; they are essentially biased against their own future status.

Theorizing Later Life


For those who seek understanding of the elderly, there are three social theories that might help to understand the elderly and their later-life experiences. These are listed in order of their professional value by Gerontologists who study aging-related psychosocial issues.

The Continuity Theory claims that older adults maintain patterns in their later years which they had in their younger years. The elderly adapt to the many changes which accompany aging using a variety of effective personal strategies they developed earlier in their life. For example, those who participated in outdoor activities in their younger years tend to continue to do so as older adults, although they tend to accommodate their health and fitness limitations as they deem appropriate.

The Activity Theory claims that the elderly benefit from high levels of activities, especially meaningful activities that help to replace lost life roles after retirement. The key to success in later-life is staying active and, by doing so, resist the social pressures that limit an older person's world. (Google Robert Havighurst and Aging).

The Disengagement Theory claims that as elderly people realize the inevitability of death and begin to systematically disengage from their previous youthful roles, society simultaneously prepares the pre-elderly and elderly to disengage from their roles. This was the first formal aging theory that fell short of credibility because the scientific data did not support its assumptions. There is quite a bit of support for Continuity and Activity Theories (see The Encyclopedia of Aging).

To really understand the elderly today you have to understand the larger social changes that have transpired over the last century. Around 1900, US elderly held a more cherished place in the hearts of younger family members. Most homes were intergenerational with grandparents, parents, and children all living in the same home and more often with kin on the wife's side being the social connection around which 3 generations would live (see Dorian Apple Sweetser, 1984 "Love and Work: Intergenerational Household Composition in the U. S. in 1900" Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 46, No. 2 (May, 1984), pp. 289-293 retrieved on 18 June 2008 SOURCE ).

The family structures that were very common a century ago are not nearly as common today. In the U.S. around the year 1900 most families had three generations living in one home (i.e., children, parents, and grandparents). In 2012, only 5 percent of all US household had multi-generational family members living in them (retrieved 6 June 2014 from SOURCE America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012, P20-570). Also, in 2011, the US Census Bureau reported that there were 115 million households in the country (report C2KBR/01-8 retrieved on 18 June 2008). There were 3.7 percent or nearly 4 million households that were multigenerational. Not having older relatives live in your home probably feels normal, however, the point is that in years past elderly family members were considered a valuable asset with their wisdom and support of their children and grandchildren. The report also provided some other insights into the family living experiences of today’s US elderly. About 72 percent of elderly men lived with their spouse while only 45 percent of elderly women did. Twenty-two percent of all US households had at least one elderly person living in them in 2011—that equals about 25,404.565 elderly.

Figures 4a and 4b show how the Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964) are entering the ranks of the current 65 and older population in the US. Like every population pyramid since 1960, the Baby Boom cohort swells out the male and female ranks with their vast numbers which are about 77+ million strong. By the year 2050 the youngest Baby Boomers will be 86 years old. The other findings presented in the report including, "In 2012, there were 22 people 65 and older for every 100 working-age people in the U.S. By comparison, in 2030, there will be 35 people 65 and older for every 100 working-age people. This means there will be approximately three working-age people for every person 65 and older" (retrieved 17 June 2014 from SOURCE ).

Figure 4a. US Census Produced Population Pyramid Highlighting Baby Boomers 2012
*Retrieved 17 June 2014 from "U.S. Population by Age and Sex: 2012 and 2050 Highlighting the Baby Boom Population"
Figure 4b. US Census Produced Population Pyramid Highlighting Baby Boomers 2050*
*Retrieved 17 June 2014 from "U.S. Population by Age and Sex: 2012 and 2050 Highlighting the Baby Boom Population"

The Modernization Theory claims that industrialization and modernization have lowered the power and influence which the elderly once had and that this has lead to much exclusion of elderly from community roles. Even though this theory is not as well established and is somewhat controversial, it has made a place in science for understanding how large-scale social forces have impacted the individual and collective lives of the elderly. In our modern societies: the economy has grown to a state that has created new levels of prosperity for most; the new technologies have outpaced the ability of the elderly to understand and use them; and the elderly are living much longer and are not essential to the economic survival of the family as was the case for millennia. Modernization can help us to understand why the elderly have become stigmatized and devalued over the last century.

Generations: Young and Old

Who make up the generations of our day? Look at Figure 5 below to see the Total Fertility Rate from 1911-2011 with overlapping generations and headcount estimates of their 2014 numbers. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is defined as the number of children the average woman has in her lifetime. The TFR rates declined with the Great Depression until 1946 (the commencement of the Baby Boom). The Baby Boom represented a surge in birth rates that persisted from 1946-1964 and declined to pre-Boom rates in 1965. Generation X or "Gen X" represents the children of the Baby Boomers which spilled into Generation Y or the "Millennials" which by most accounts were born between 1980 and 2000 (plus or minus a year or two on the start and finish dates). There is also a new generation emerging which has yet to be named because its members have not yet grown old enough to compare and contrast their traits to previous generations and identify their unique qualities.

Figure 5. Total Fertility Rate US 1911-2011 with 2014 Headcount Estimates of Five US Generations
*Retrieved 23 May 2014 SOURCE

The World-At-War Generation is slowly disappearing from the US population landscape. On the 18th of June, 2008 the last living Veteran of World War I was honored by the White House and Congress. Frank W. Buckles fought in WWI and was held prisoner in Manila during World War II (see CNN, retrieved on 19 June, 2008 from ). "According to the 2012 U.S. Census brief, Veterans age 65 or older numbered in excess of 12.4 million" (Retrieved 28 May 2014 SOURCE).

In Figure 6 you can see that the majority of the elderly today are women who outnumber men in 2010 at 22+ million women to only 1+ men. If you consider the elderly as being divided into three life stages you can discern just how the elderly are comprised comparing males to females. The Young-old=65-74 years; the Middle-old=75-84 years; and the Old-old= 85+ years. In 2005 there were more females in all three ages: 65-74; 75-84; and 85+.

Figure 6: Numbers of US Elderly Population Ages 65-74, 75-84, and 85+*.
*Retrieved 23 May 2014.

Sex Ratio is the number of males per 100 females. The 2014 US 65 years and older sex ratio was 75.4 males/100 females (Retrieved 17 June 2014 from Appendix Table A-3 ). But the gap between elderly men and women is expected to narrow: "Female life expectancy has long exceeded male life expectancy, resulting in women outnumbering men in the older age groups. While that trend is projected to continue over the next four decades, the gap between the number of women and men is expected to narrow. This narrowing is due to the more rapid increase in life expectancy for men that is projected over the next several decades Sex Ratio is the number of males per 100 females. (Retrieved 17 June 2014 from Appendix Table A-3, page 8 SOURCE ).

Figure 7 below shows the proportion of elderly across the world. IN almost every country there are more elderly women than men. In almost every country there are also increasing percentages of each population that has aged and is 65 years or older. This increase will continue and become an issue for scientists who will have to reconcile the increasing proportions of each population that is elderly to the decreasing proportion that is working age (decreasing birth rates over the last 30-40 years have produced fewer working aged people. See Dependency ratio information below).

Figure 7.Population Aging Is Occurring Worldwide
(Retrieved 28 May 2014 from Population Data Sheet 2013).

A Cohort is a group of people who share a statistical or demographic trait such as those born between 1946-1964. Nearly 8,000 Baby Boomers turned 65 each day in 2014 and should countinue at that rate until 2029 (retrieved 17 June 2014 from AARP "Boomers @65"). The Baby Boomers represented 76.4 million U.S. citizens as of April 2014 (see ). This large cohort of society's member is moving en mass into the ranks of the elderly. The US Census estimates that 57.8 million baby Boomers will be around in 2030 after they've all retired. One issue for gerontologist is the financial strain the Baby Boomers will place on the rest of society once they are retired. Most speculate that baby Boomers will not receive the same from the Social Security Administration benefits that their parents and grandparents enjoyed.

The children of the Baby Boomers were called the Generation X children or the "Baby Bust" because they were born in post-Boom low fertility rate years. They were different from their parents. They grew up with the computer age and came to computer technology much like an immigrant comes to a new country. This cohort grew up in an economic state of greater posterity than did previous generations. Generation Y, or Millennials, are also called the "Internet Generation" or "Screenagers" because they grew up with TV, video games, cell phones, PDAs, and movie screens (see Youtube video narrated by a PEW researcher named Paul Taylor ). Each generation is culturally distinct compared to the previous ones even though much still remains in common. There is a good chance that children of Generation Y parents will be better skilled than their parents with a technology that has not yet been invented. Such has been the case comparing the last three generations.

This is because women, in most countries of the world, have a higher life expectancy than men. Life Expectancy is the average numbers of years a person born today may expect to live. The US Life expectancy today is about 81 for females and 76 for males (worldwide it 70 for females and 66 for males( see , Population Data Sheet for current year). Life expectancies have increased dramatically over the last 50 years in the Western nations of Canada, United States, Australia, Japan, and Western Europe. Overall, men and women can expect to live longer than they did in the 1940s-1990s.

In Table 2 below you see the increasing life expectancies in the US. The elderly of the future will be expected to live longer than any elderly in the history of the United States and world. Being born in the US affords the average member of society a longer life.

Table 2: United States Life Expectancies 1970 to 2020 (est.) for Total Population, Males and Females .
Year Total Male Female
1970 70.8 67.1 74.7
1980 73.7 70.0 77.4
1990 75.4 71.8 78.8
2000 76.8 74.3 79.7
2010 78.3 75.7 80.8
2015 78.9 76.4 81.4
2020 79.5 77.1 81.9

Another major trend in child care over the last 30-40 years has been the development of kinship care. Kinship care means care giving provided by grandparents, other relatives, or even friends, without the direct support of the child’s parents. Many non-White US subculture groups have practiced kinship care over the last few centuries. But, it has only been recent that the majority White families have been practicing it. Hong et al. (2011) reported that in terms of formal and informal foster care, kinship "care placement has increasingly become a preferred form of childcare arrangement" (Hong, J., Algood, C.L., Chiu, Y., and Lee, S. A. (2011). An Ecological Understanding of Kinship Foster Care in the United States. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 20(6), 863-872, p.863).

Langosch (2012) estimated about 2.4 million grandparents nationwide who were raising about 6 million grandchildren, representing a 50 percent increase from 1995-2005. Bissell and Miller (2012) reported that 26 percent of all state-supervised children in the US are cared for by Kin. Kinship caregiving costs the government less money that traditional foster caregiving. Langosch (2012) reported that kinship caregivers save the government billions of dollars every year (Langosch, D. (2012). Grandparents Parenting Again: Challenges, Strengths, and Implications for Practice. Psychoanalytic Inquiry,32(2), 163-170). Strom and Strom (2011) reported that in the United States it cost states an average of $22,000 for a foster care child and only $4,000 for a kinship child’s annual support (Strom, P. D. & Strom, R.D. (2011). Grandparent Education: Raising Grandchildren. Educational Gerontology, 37(10), 910-923).

A recent report, published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation stated that the trend of diverting children who otherwise have been placed in foster care into kinship care has saved billions of dollars in care giving cost to state and federal governments. But at what cost? Many kinship care givers refuse to seek professional help and professional resources because they might be ashamed and because they might be protecting the child’s parents. If the kinship caregiver does not seek help outside the family, then none of the vast community resources (grants, medical care, therapy, education, caseworker evaluation, etc.) can be obtained for the family.

Oversight is needed if we truly want to provide children with the best placement experience. (For more information, see The Kinship Diversion Debate: Policy and Practice Implications for Children, Families and Child Welfare Agencies by the Annie E. Casey Foundation ). In spite of this concern, recent scientific studies have documented the relative quality of children raised in kinship care giving compared to foster children and others. (See recent studies: Hong, J., Algood, C.L., Chiu, Y., and Lee, S. A. (2011). An Ecological Understanding of Kinship Foster Care in the United States. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 20(6), 863-872 and Winokur M, Holtan A, & Valentine D. (2009). Kinship care for the safety, permanency, and well-being of children removed from the home for maltreatment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 1, 1-122.)

Population Aging Is Occurring Worldwide.

In Table 3 below you can see that North American children are born with the higher life expectancies than other children around the world. By far, being born in Japan and Hong Kong would provide the absolute highest life expectancy at birth at 82 years for the total. (Retrieved 23 May 2014, SOURCE).

Table 3: 2013 World and Regional Life Expectancies by Regions for Totals, Males and Females
Region Total Male Female
World 70 68 73
Africa 59 57 60
North America 79 77 81
Latin America 75 72 78
Asia 71 69 73
Europe 77 74 81
Oceania 77 75 79
*(retrieved 28 May 2014 SOURCE)

In fact all regions of the world are growing older. The developing countries are aging the fastest. Consider this screen capture and color map taken from the Population Reference Bureau World Population data Sheet 2013:

Over the past half-century, both the worldwide drop in fertility and the concurrent rise in life expectancy have led to the gradual aging of the world's population. Look at Table 4 below. Since 1950, the share of persons ages 65 and older has risen from 5 percent to 7 percent worldwide. As the map shows, Europe and Japan have led the way, with North America, Australia, and New Zealand close behind. However, older persons are now more than 5 percent of the inhabitants in many developing countries and by 2050 are expected to be 19 percent of Latin America's population and 18 percent of Asia's.

Table 4: Worldwide Percent of Persons Ages 65 and Older*
Region of World 2014 2025 2050
WORLD 8 11 17
More Developed Countries 17 21 27
Less Developed Countries 7 10 17
Least Developed Countries 3 4 7
Europe 17 21 28
North America 15 19 21
Oceania 12 15 20
Latin Am. & Caribbean 7 10 19
Asia 8 10 19
Africa 4 4 7
*(Retrieved 28 May 2014 from SOURCE).

As mentioned, elderly women outlive elderly men. What happens when a spouse dies? Widowhood occurs when one's spouse dies. Widows are surviving wives. Widowers are surviving husbands. For the most part gerontologist expect to see more widows than widowers both in the US and the entire world.

As a young college student you probably don't worry about ever being a widow or widower. Justifiably, you shouldn't have to based on statistical probabilities. In fact, you are more likely to lose a spouse via death than via divorce. Do some math with me. If you are female and marry a guy 2 years older, and he typically dies 5-6 years before you, then you will be a widow at some time in your life and may live 6-8 years as such. One sub-discipline of gerontology is thanatology. Thanatology is the scientific study of death and dying. Thanatology informs those who provide support and counsel to the dying.

How we define death, both our own and the death of others, is very much influenced by the cultural definition of death we incorporated into our own values while growing up. Most of us are related to someone who died in the last 24 months. It's very common for college students about your age to have lost a great aunt/uncle, great grandparent, and even a grand parent. It's not so common for you to have lost you own parent or sibling. Grief is the feeling of loss we experience after a death, disappointment, or tragedy. When you experience grief you are said to be in bereavement. Bereavement is a name for the circumstances and conditions that accompany grief.

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her work as the stages of grief. These include: denial - "All is fine, or it didn't happen;" anger - "why me? Or I hate God for this;" bargaining - "I'd be a better person if you (God) will just let him live;" depression - "all is lost, or why try?;" and/or acceptance - "we'll be okay or we can get through this together" (see "On Death and Dying," 1973; Routledge Press).

I've noticed that we all grieve when things disappoint us, when someone dies, when we are disappointed, when we hear of tragic news, or even when we break up with someone. I've seen my seniors grieve to a certain degree when they did not get into graduate school on their first try. We all grieve and we all grieve in our own way. Studies show that most people experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance, but there exists some disagreement on the part about cycling through Kübler-Ross' stages in any order.

The study of aging, the study of generations, the study of life course, and the study of death and dying are part of the social gerontology approach. Courses and degrees are offered throughout the US and abroad and there are many professions where gerontologists work throughout their careers.

The study of aging would not be complete without focusing on family relationships and roles. Of the over 43,000,000 (millions) of elderly in the U.S., about 6 million still work for pay. About 7 million are taking adult education courses. About 21 million are married, and about 13 million are widowed. Only 1,400,000 live in nursing homes. About 32 million own their homes. In the 65-plus age group, there are only 73 men per 100 women (data retrieved from U.S. Census on 9 February 2010 from SOURCE). These trends lead to some important family-related issues that need to be discussed here.

Just how the future of elderly family relationships will be in coming decades is very difficult to predict. Many elderly live single (regardless of any wishes to the contrary). The U.S. Census Bureau reported that among 65+ ages there were 3,500,000 elderly single men with no spouse or partner and 10,400,000 elderly women with no spouse or partner (retrieved 10 Feb. 2010 from SOURCE). The imbalance among elderly single men and women is obvious. Although many single marrieds might enjoy an intimate relationship with a partner or spouse, the rewards and costs are different between men and women in these age ranges. It is true that their combined retirement incomes and living expenses might be increased together and therefore appealing to both, but elderly women are faced with a biological truth that makes the possibility of another long-term intimate relationship less appealing -- that is that men die much sooner than women. To marry a 65-year-old man is to take on a caregiver position that in 5-10 years will place the women in a stressful, very demanding, and perhaps overwhelming role.

Many widows have already been through something like this with their deceased husbands. Many divorcees and never marrieds have found their life patterns to be very established and difficult if not impossible to change. Thus, many elderly remain single and have friendships and intimacies without the long-term commitments that come with cohabiting or marrying again.

What do the trends for elderly unmarrieds in later life suggest to us? Quite simply more divorced and separated elderly are predicted. Figure 8 below shows the actual trends in increasing divorced elderly from 1963-2003. There are higher proportions of divorced and separated elderly now than in the past. This trend is not the same for widowhood. In other words, there is only a slight increase in widowhood compared to a dramatic increase in being divorced or separated.

Figure 8. Percent of U.S. Who Are Elderly Divorced (Age 65 & Over) by Females and Males, 1963-2012 U.S. Census Reports.
Data retrieved from US Census Statistical Abstracts: SOURCE

Another trend, which is documented in Figure 9 below, shows the increasing numbers of those in the pre-elderly stages of life (ages 30-64). There are increased rates of divorcing and remaining divorced. The Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. They turn 65 between 2011 and 2029. This cohort in the U.S. has the highest documented divorce rates of any age-related cohort ever studied in the United States (see R. M. Kreider, "Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces," Figures 1a & 1b: Percent of Men and Women Ever Divorced, Among Those Ever Married by Selected Ages, for Selected Birth Cohorts: 2001. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports: P70-97, Washington D.C.)

The numbers of elderly will nearly double by the time all the Baby Boomers reach age 65 in 2030. This leads to the conclusion that when the Baby Boomers reach age 65 (beginning in the year 2011), the prevalence of divorced elderly will rise to an even higher level because of the sheer volume of divorced Baby Boomers who will also, for whatever reason, remain divorced into their later years.

Figure 9. Percent of U.S. Elderly Pre-Elderly Who Are Divorced (Age 30-64) by Females and Males, 1963-2012 U.S. Census Reports.
Data retrieved from US Census Statistical Abstracts: SOURCE

Not all retirement years are created equally. Figure 10 shows the income comparisons of married versus divorced elderly males and females from 1994-2004. Notice that the highest median income levels were for married males. Divorced males had the next highest levels, and divorced females (represented by the orange line) came in third. Married females came in last, in part because this generation of elderly had a relatively high rate of traditional homemakers, who have fewer Social Security retirement benefits than their husbands.

Figure 10. Median Income Levels for All Races of United States Elderly (Age 65 & Over) Male & Female Married Compared to Male & Female Divorced, 1994-2012 U.S. Census
Data retrieved from US Census Statistical Abstracts: SOURCE

Figure 11 shows some of the quality of life differences found in the National Longitudinal Surveys-Mature Women data set (yes, this is an example of secondary analysis research). Elderly divorced and widowed women were more likely to still be in the labor force than married ones. Married women had the lowest levels of reported unhappiness and rarely enjoying life. Feeling sad was similar among all categories.

Figure 11. Growing dependent population of the U.S. projected to 2050*
*Ortman, Jennifer M., Victoria A. Velkoff, and Howard Hogan. An Aging Nation: The Older Population in the United States, Current Population Reports, P25-1140. U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC. 2014.

Roles of Grandparents

The role of grandparent is a socially acceptable one in the U.S. It is admired by others, bragged about by grandparents, and more often than not appreciated by grandchildren. Grandparents are given social approval by peers and society in general for being in that role. Grandparents also can be as actively or inactively involved as they desire. There are varying types of grandparental involvement, and I've developed a few types just for comparison purposes here. Most U.S. grandparents live in another household from their grandchildren. But economic uncertainties and demographic changes with lower birth rates may contribute to the U.S. returning to three- or four-generational households (see Pew Research Center: Social and demographic Trends, Monday Feb. 11, 2008 "US Pop. Projections: 2005-2050 by Passel and Cohn).


The "Disneyland Grandparents" entertain and distract their grandchildren from the mundane aspects of their daily lives at home. These grandparents provide a certain entertainment option that is missing for the children's not-yet established parents. Grandchildren come to have high expectations of indulgence when spending time with these grandparents.

The "Assistant Parent" grandparent is the one who takes the grandchildren to school functions, practices, and doctors’ appointments or waits for the grandchildren to come to their house after school and before the parents return home from work. Because the parents are typically both employed, these grandparents sometimes become an integral part of their grandchild's daily life and have an ongoing supportive role in the grandchild's busy schedule. Many young dual-employed couples could not afford the cost of formal daycare, and many grandparents feel rewarded by the meaningful contribution they make in this role.

The "Parental Substitute" grandparent is the one who lives in the home with the grandchild (or the grandchild lives in the grandparent's home). This is an older family member who is drawing retirement, depends heavily on Medicare for their medical expenses, and is typically in declining health. These grandparents have a great deal of stress that often reminds them of the original parental stresses they faced when they were raising their own children. The Parental Substitute grandparents often express fatigue and feeling overburdened.

Raising grandchildren is not what most grandparents anticipated to happen in their later lives. Grandparents in the U.S. often have direct daily interaction with their grandchildren. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates over 7 million grandparents do have their grandchildren living in their home (retrieved 13 June 2014 SOURCE ). This type of grandparent is common when unwed teen mothers keep their babies, when an adult child is divorced or widowed, or when a child or son/daughter-in-law becomes disabled.

Finally, there is the "Distant Relative" grandparent. These grandparents visit at times and live at a geographic or emotional distance from their grandchildren. They typically can't or will not have a close relationship with the grandchildren. Telephones and the Internet allow these grandparents to consult with the parents and be intermittently involved in the lives of their children and grandchildren, but many grandchildren experiencing this type of grandparenting often report a disconnect to these grandparents.

Grandparents can have a positive and nurturing impact on their grandchildren, or they can have a shameful and negative one. Some grandparents work diligently to reinforce the value of each individual grandchild, often trying not to repeat the same mistakes they made when raising their own children. These grandparents find ways to show and express their love, support, and valuation of the grandchild.

Other grandparents repeat the shameful patterns of parenting that they mistakenly used in their own parenting efforts. They label grandchildren and shame them as a form of control and discipline. When asked this question, "If you had to use a negative or positive symbol to portray how your grandma or grandpa views you, which would it be and why?", grandchildren will indicate to some degree the nature of their relationship to their grandparents and how they perceive a low esteem that these grandparents have for them.

Elder abuse is a significant problem in modern U.S. families. I will give you just a short mention of it in this chapter so you can contemplate some of the facts, and in chapter 16 I'll cover family violence and tragedies in more detail. Elder Abuse is the mistreatment of, violence against, and otherwise harmful manipulation of elderly persons. Marlene Lee (2009) reported that elderly abuse is too common (retrieved 10 February 2010 SOURCE ). She reported that fewer than 10 percent of U.S. elderly are abused in any way, and that verbal abuse was the most common form. She also reported that non-family persons accounted for more than half of all elderly abuse. When a family member was verbally abused, it was more likely to be from a spouse. Financial and physical abuse were more likely to be inflicted by a child.

Additional Reading

Search the keywords and names in your Internet browser

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (Without the help of the parents) SOURCE

Grand H.E.L.P. for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Colorado State U. SOURCE

Help for Grandparents and other Relatives Raising their relative’s children SOURCE

Kids Matter Inc. – Kinship Care Wisconsin SOURCE

IFAPA – Iowa’s foster, adoptive & kinship care families resources SOURCE

National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections – Kinship Care SOURCE

Adoption by Family Type: Kinship/Relative Families SOURCE

National Kinship: Alliance for Children – The GrandKin Guide SOURCE

Raising Grandchildren: Support from AARP SOURCE

Children’s Defense Fund – Kinship Care Resource Kit SOURCE

Generations United – Grandfamily Resources SOURCE

Grandfamilies – Resources SOURCE


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