Oprah Winfrey told Vogue magazine earlier this year that she asked longtime partner Stedman Graham only once about what would have happened had they gotten married. He replied, “We wouldn’t be together.”
Winfrey then added, “We would not have stayed together because marriage requires a different way of being in this world.”
The number of U.S. adults apparently agreeing with the celebrity has climbed to about 18 million in 2016, according to census data. That’s up 29 percent from 2007, but what surprised the Pew Research Center, which issues periodic reports on demographic trends, is that the number of cohabiting adults 50 and older shot up 75 percent over the last decade.
“The sheer number is striking,” said Pew research analyst Renee Stepler. “Cohabiting adults 50 and older make up one-quarter of all cohabiters today, and that’s striking because cohabitation used to be a step before marriage.”
The fact that seniors living together outpaced other age groups in the time period is raising questions and eyebrows — among researchers trying to map out what the tidal wave of aging baby boomers may mean to everything from housing to health care.
After Bowling Green State University sociology professor Susan L. Brown offered thoughts on the latest Pew figures on a radio talk show in May, one listener posted: “Shouldn’t conservatives be in outrage that old people are redefining marriage by making it superfluous?” And another stated: “Two senior citizens living together out of wedlock? That’s a slippery slope …”
To Brown, the “dramatic” increase in the number of older cohabiters is both portentous and another indication of evolving arrangements — younger people delaying marriage or deciding not to marry at all.
“My thinking is, in the latter half of life’s course, older adults are innovating in their relationships,” she said. “There’s a different calculus. It does challenge the centrality of marriage. (But) most have been with their partners 10 or more years, making it more marriagelike.”
To be sure, there are plenty of issues surrounding the cohabitation of older adults, including the interests of grown children and responsibility for “in sickness and in health” since the social contract of marriage is missing. Articles and books explore “how to shack up successfully in your senior years” and implore serious consideration of its impact on inheritances, pensions, social security and property.
Advisers tell those “brave enough” to risk their hearts at an advanced age to carefully weigh marriage versus cohabitation, realizing that while the former offers certain privileges and status, the latter allows more financial independence and lessens legal responsibilities. And there’s simply less time to recover if the relationship sours, they argue.
Syndicated columnist Terry Savage warns “cohabitation can be costly. … This is not a question of morals or social trends. These couples share rent, homes, mortgages, expenses and children. … But while they may choose to live outside the conventional bounds of marriage, they don’t live outside the conventional bounds of property law.” She urges separate attorneys to forge binding agreements.
To marry or cohabit may be encumbered by legal and financial factors, but not generally by moral constraints. Baby boomers popularized living together as far back as the ’70s, and their experiences in intervening years have only reinforced the idea for many that a ring and a piece of paper do not a happy relationship make.
“For older adults, who are post-childbearing, there’s no need to legitimize children,” said Brown. Plus, “the stigma to living outside marriage has dissipated.”
For seniors like Lynne Rosner and Joe Cardillo, of Decatur, Ga., being together just makes sense and didn’t involve extensive introspection. Like most cohabiters over 50, both had been married and divorced — Cardillo twice before he moved into Rosner’s house 10 years ago. Rosner, a retired benefits director, had been on her own for decades and had never had any desire to remarry, but she didn’t hesitate after meeting Cardillo while bicycling, dating for 10 months and learning he needed to move.
“I said, ‘What about living here,’ and we both seemed comfortable with it,” said Rosner, 74. Any mention of possible marriage has been quickly dismissed.
“Can you imagine what our vows would be like,” Cardillo, 68, remembers joking once. “There is no point. We’re fine the way we are.”
Rosner concurred, adding that not one of their combined six adult children has ever raised the issue.
“We both felt more comfortable with not being tied to that legality,” she said. “It would be different if we’d never been married.”
So-called “gray divorce,” which has doubled since the 1990s, is contributing to the number of those 50 and older who could re-partner. Fifty-five percent of cohabiters in this age group are divorced, 13 percent are widowed and 27 percent have never been married, according to Pew.
Rosner and Cardillo easily slide around labels — she’s Grandma to his grandchildren, and they often introduce each other as though they’re married. Their status has seldom been a problem.
“When I had a serious bike accident, nobody ever asked (about marriage),” Rosner said, nor did it come up when she helped him through surgery.
Yet, Brown sees big uncertainties ahead for both individuals and society, in general, when it comes to health concerns and caring for baby boomers. The relatively little data that exist on who assumes responsibility for frail elders outside marriage is unsettling, said Brown and a former student, Matthew Wright, whose doctoral dissertation looked at adult children and their cohabiting parents.
“Cohabiting is attractive for those not wanting to be nursemaids,” Brown said. “But reality hits. Do (partners) provide care or break up — it’s an intriguing question, a societal question.”
Wright, now teaching sociology at Arkansas State University, said the absence of data on cohabiting parents and adult children was “glaring,” especially in light of the fact that children may be important sources of support in their parents’ later years and previous research had shown cohabiters are less likely to receive care from their partners than marrieds from their spouses.
On average, he found cohabiting older adults report the lowest frequency of contact and the least positive relationship quality with their children. The continuously married had the most contact, followed by those who were widowed, remarried or divorced. The widowed had the most qualitative relationships.
That led to his main conclusion — that cohabiters would fare worse than seniors who never married or were divorced or widowed and not re-partnered, Wright said.
Yet, he said, he was surprised that cohabiters fared similarly to the divorced and remarried versus those who’d been continuously married or widowed.
“Children are more accepting of their parents’ new nonmarital unions,” Wright said at a Population Association of America meeting in April in Chicago.
Still, he said in an interview, “We really need to think about, as time goes on and the proportion of cohabitation grows, what does it mean on a societal basis of providing care?”
Adding more potential strain is that families have fewer or no children and children tend to live farther away from parents, eliminating traditional caregivers, Brown said.
“Institutional supports come into play and will be costly,” she said.
Kay Manning is a freelancer.