1880-1990: Living Arrangements and Marital Status of Elderly Women

Summary: Research by Dora Costa shows that older women were more likely than men to be unmarried even back in 1880, but the percentage living with their children has declined significantly since then.

Dora Costa has collected statistics on the marital status of elderly men and women from 1880 to today. She discovered that the percentage of older men and women who are married has hardly changed in the last century, and that throughout that period older women are only half as likely as older men to be married. She points out that the increased life expectancy of women is partly responsible for that difference in the later years. In earlier years, when there was not as much difference in life expectancy, women were more likely to marry men who were much older than themselves, so they often outlived their husbands. In later years, the percentage of women who were widowed began to decline, but it was compensated for by an increase in the percentage of divorced and never married women, while the percentage of age 65+ women who were married remained fairly constant.

This information is important in the study of long term care because married people are often able to provide and care for each other, while unmarried people have no partner to help them.

Marital Status of Men and Women Age 65+, 1880-1990

Year Men Women
Married Widowed Other Married Widowed Other
1880 72% 22% 6% 35% 58% 7%
1890 71% 23% 6% 35% 59% 6%
1900 65% 29% 6% 34% 61% 6%
1910 65% 28% 7% 34% 59% 7%
1920 65% 27% 9% 34% 59% 7%
1930 64% 27% 10% 35% 57% 9%
1940 64% 25% 11% 35% 55% 10%
1950 64% 24% 12% 35% 55% 11%
1960 69% 19% 12% 37% 52% 11%
1970 71% 17% 12% 35% 52% 12%
1980 75% 15% 11% 36% 52% 12%
1990 75% 14% 11% 39% 50% 12%

Source: Dora L. Costa, A House of Her Own: Old Age Assistance and the Living Arrangements of Older Nonmarried Women. (NBER Working Paper No. 6217, 1997)

Dora Costa uncovered some interesting statistics about the percentage of women who lived with family members as dependents from 1890 to today. She found that unmarried women, whether they were widowed, divorced, or never married, were far more likely to be living with family members than married women throughout this period. However, she also determined that all women, regardless of marital status, have become less likely to live with family members than they were 100 years ago, and that they have become much more likely to be living independently in their own homes as the head of household or the spouse of the head of household. Her study found that this change was strongly related to the availability of income from pensions and old-age assistance programs in the latter part of the century.

Dependency and Living Arrangements of Women Age 65 or Older, 1890-1990

Married Women

Year Head of Household or Wife of Head Living With Family as Dependent Boarder or Other
1890 89% 10% 1%
1900 87% 12% 1%
1910 88% 11% 1%
1920 89% 9% 2%
1930 - - -
1940 91% 7% 2%
1950 92% 6% 2%
1960 96% 3% 1%
1970 97% 2% 1%
1980 98% 2% 0%
1990 98% 2% 0%

Widowed Women

Year Head of Household or Wife of Head Living With Family as Dependent Boarder or Other
1890 36% 57% 7%
1900 40% 54% 6%
1910 42% 53% 5%
1920 42% 53% 5%
1930 - - -
1940 51% 43% 6%
1950 52% 41% 7%
1960 65% 29% 6%
1970 72% 26% 2%
1980 83% 16% 1%
1990 85% 14% 1%

Other Women

Year Head of Household or Wife of Head Living With Family as Dependent Boarder or Other
1890 21% 59% 20%
1900 29% 51% 20%
1910 25% 56% 19%
1920 32% 51% 17%
1930 - - -
1940 41% 41% 18%
1950 45% 39% 16%
1960 65% 25% 10%
1970 64% 28% 8%
1980 81% 18% 1%
1990 78% 16% 6%

Source: Dora L. Costa, A House of Her Own: Old Age Assistance and the Living Arrangements of Older Nonmarried Women. (NBER Working Paper No. 6217, 1997)

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