Gray divorce: More boomers are choosing to go it alone, study says

Published: Sunday, April 15 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Still, money is an issue, according to Janice Green, a divorce attorney from Texas who wrote "Divorce After 50" and has addressed that topic on NPR's "Talk of the Nation," AARP's website and elsewhere. Older individuals have less time to make up any financial losses. "They have fewer years to retire debt and experience recovering their portfolios by riding the markets up and down. That permeates all aspects of divorce."

She told the AARP that financial survival "is the primary reason divorce clients in this age group have a level of anxiety and concern that's off the charts — or so I've observed. They know the financial stakes are high."

Because baby boomers as a group are better-educated and typically have more financial stability than younger generations, but they are also less traditional than older generations, the researchers wanted to look specifically at how being unmarried would impact them. They figured that "the baby boomers are not immune to the vulnerabilities associated with being unmarried," they wrote.

They wanted to see if the dynamics that lead to why an adult is single in later years, with well-documented financial and social impact, hold true for boomers: Adults who never married are more prone to poverty and the need for safety net programs, while the divorced typically have higher incomes. What about the safety net?

Those who are single because a spouse died may have stronger family ties and they don't co-habit as often. They also may have a safety net in the form of survivor benefits from Social Security.

Of those who had never married, they found a dearth of social supports such as Social Security spouse and widow benefits. Those account for half of income for people who are widowed or divorced after 65, the researchers said. "The current safety net will not be able to provide sufficient protection to an increasing share of unmarried boomer women when they reach old age," they said.

The Center for American Progress said in 2008, 23 percent of unmarried women 60 and older lived in poverty. It said unmarried women, especially single mothers and the elderly, make up the biggest share of adults who need safety-net programs. Many won't qualify for those programs. A demographer from the Brookings Institution pointed out to the Kansas City Star that boomers tend to have fewer children than previous generations, which may mean less support in their old age.

It's not an issue that should be ignored, the study authors said. "As the U.S. population ages, the number of persons ages 50 and older that experience divorce will continue to climb by one-third, even if the divorce rate remains unchanged. The rise in divorce among middle-aged and older adults is not only likely to shape the health and well-being of those who experience it directly, but also to have ramifications for the well-being of family members (e.g. children and grandchildren) and intensify the demands placed on the broader institutional support systems available to middle-aged and older adults," they wrote.

True believers

While choosing to remain single is a growing trend, it's certainly far from unanimous. The Deseret News interviewed Tony, a 71-year-old man who's divorcing for the third time. He will, he says, keep trying because he believes in love and family and wants that. "I truly believe that I am lovable," he said. "I know how much I have to give and it can be unconditional, infinite."

Living together without marriage isn't an option, said Tony, who asked that his last name not be used. "That's not me. I've never had relationships outside of marriage. Fellowship, companionship — it's all important to me. I don't want to grow old alone." He is, he said, a traditionalist.

Hill, a general manager at SmithsTix, doesn't entirely discount marrying again. "I guess you never know, but it's not something I'm considering. I have friends who would love nothing more than to be married. They enjoy that part of their life. Married. Hmmm. What would I be willing to give up to be married?" she asked, noting her social life was more limited when she was married.

She is not particularly troubled that her single status may leave her without support or resources as she grows old. "Who said we all die alone? It's true. I think honestly I have a better chance of not dying alone if I have good friends and a healthy social life. Family can be a little iffy."

Programs are springing up across the country to help older individuals experiencing or moving toward divorce. At the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., for example, there are gender-based classes to address common issues.

For those who want to save a failing marriage, the Wall Street Journal recently offered advice from a long-term study, not yet published, by University of Denver researchers. It found that even if you can't get your spouse to go into counseling, you should go. Research found that seeking help in relationship skills improves the marriage of those who go alone as much as it does those who attend as a couple, Still, the therapists said, there are even more benefits when both partners get help.

Marilyn Katz, an insurance expert and author of hundreds of articles about retirement, said retiring single is harder than retiring married for both sexes financially. Single people have to prepare carefully. Her advice is to start planning for retirement early and for those with a spouse to think as well about what they'd do if they lost the spouse, regardless of cause. Those who know they'll be single should save a larger percentage of their earnings and reduce their cost of living, if possible.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com Twitter: Loisco

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