Boomers love to do everything their own way, and they are out in front on divorce, too. While the overall divorce rate in the United States has decreased since 1990, it has doubled for those over age 50.
Reasons vary: Longer lives mean more years with an incompatible spouse; no kids to use as a reason to stay together; less stigma about splitting; more women working, some outearning their spouses; and a remarriage failure rate of 60 percent.
The surge has spawned the term "gray divorce." As Jay Lebow, a psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, says, "If late-life divorce were a disease, it would be an epidemic."
One out of three boomers will face older age unmarried, says Susan Brown, codirector of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in her new study "The Gray Divorce Revolution."
That's significant. The fact that onetime legally bound partners have gone their separate ways later in life — or are single by choice or circumstances — has many personal and societal ramifications.
Paying on your own
Even if not divorced, older adults can be vulnerable financially in today's economy. But a split-up hardly helps. "You end up with only half of what you had when you were married, and half can feel like nothing," says Ginita Wall, a San Diego CPA and certified divorce financial analyst.
"Keep in mind that many consequences of divorcing later in life revolve around one fact: less time to recover financially, recoup losses, retire debt and ride the waves of booms and busts," says Janice Green, an Austin, Texas, family law attorney and author of Divorce After 50.
More than half of all workers or their spouses have less than $25,000 in household savings and investments, according to the 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey, published by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute. Women also still earn less than men and have a longer life expectancy, which puts them at greater economic risk. "Once women wind up older and alone, whether it's widowed, divorced or never married, they're at a fairly high rate of poverty, on average 20 percent," says Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Singles will also depend more on public benefits, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, according to Maya Rockeymoore, a Social Security expert. With the oldest of the 78 million boomers turning 85 in 2031, the government tab could be staggering. In 2021, Medicare alone is expected to cost taxpayers $1.1 trillion — up from $586 billion in 2012.
To stay afloat, some singles, like Eileen Lewis, 66, take in boarders. Divorced at 50 after a two-decade marriage, she rents out a room in her Catonsville, Md., home. The income helps her pay her utilities, gas and part of her mortgage — and enabled her to take a cruise, "something I never would have been able to do before," she says.
Someone to watch over me
Caregiving adds to the burden of aging alone — and it, too, typically affects women. A 2009 National Alliance for Caregiving/AARP survey found that 66 percent of caregivers were female, with women providing on average 21.9 hours per week vs. 17.4 hours for males. And, according to a National Alliance for Caregiving/Evercare survey, the average out-of-pocket expense for caregivers is $5,531 a year, $8,728 if helping from a distance and $5,885 if the caregiver and care recipient live together.
Older men may make out better financially than women, but they don't fare so well at finding someone to take care of them when they're older. "They often don't have alternative care networks the way women do," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. "If a man gets divorced, his support in later life is gone. Plan B may be to remarry because he needs a caregiver."
After divorce, children often live with their mothers. If dads move away or don't stay close, adult children may not be willing to be caregivers when needed.
Remarriage for either ex is murky territory, too. "If you acquire a stepson when you're 60, will he help you when you're old?" asks Cherlin. "We're creating complex family relationships where we're related to more people but obligated to fewer." Even if there is a close bond, children may not live close by.
When asked who they'll turn to when they're older, single men often cite paid help, says Teresa Cooney, a gerontologist at the University of Missouri. But paid help is pricey, and can be hard to find. Up to half of the 5.4 million adults with Alzheimer's have no identifiable caregiver. Former spouses often step in, mainly to spare their children, or because no one else can, says Cooney.
The end of a marriage often leads to the formation of a new family, with relatives or friends assuming the caregiving role of a spouse. It can also lead to some unexpected living arrangements.
After her marriage of 32 years ended in 2008, Ellen Rittberg, 60, of Long Island, N.Y., moved to her mother's home to save money. A year into the arrangement, her mom broke her pelvis; Rittberg decided to stay. Now they care for each other. "It is mutual love and companionship," says the mother of three and grandmother of two. "I went from being embarrassed that I was living with my mother to feeling so lucky we're close, and that I can do this."
Not everyone has family, can live with them, or wants to. According to AARP, 22.3 percent of women and 12.5 percent of men age 50-plus live alone. With people living longer, adult children could wind up caring for three or four parents, plus stepparents. Already, one-third of all female caregivers care for two or more people.
Though most people want to grow old in their homes, some don't have that choice. Those living in the suburbs or a rural area with limited public transportation and social interaction have additional challenges.
Some singles who don't want to burden their children are creating their own support systems. Arthur Okner, a divorced, retired management consultant, owns a condo in a Boulder, Colo., cohousing community, where decisions are made by consensus. "I have very little family," says Okner, 70. "Here, I belong to a community."
Also on the rise are "villages," where older adults living on their own have access to vetted services, like home repair, as well as trips, lunches or evening events for an annual fee, $350 on average. Other singles make their own arrangements. Edith Heyck, 61, an artist from Newburyport, Mass., shared a condo for three years with another divorcee in her 50s. "I enjoyed the companionship and it was a financial relief," she says. When her friend sold the condo, Heyck moved in with an older woman, until Heyck lost her place to a new boyfriend. Now, Heyck is "sofa surfing," until she's eligible for senior housing. "I never planned for my financial future," says Heyck. "I just assumed I would be married."
Sally Abrahms, coauthor of What Every Woman Should Know About Divorce and Custody, writes about boomers and aging.