Hot Topics: Late-in-Life Divorce

Hot Topics: Late-in-Life Divorce

Deborah Carr is a professor in the Department of Sociology and the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research. Her research interests are in the areas of family, aging, and the life course, gender, and psychological and physical health. She recently co-authored and submitted a book chapter, “Divorce and Widowhood in Later Life,” around the time Al and Tipper Gore announced plans to divorce after 40 years of marriage.

Rutgers Today: Public surprise seemed to be widespread following the announcement of the Gores' divorce. Should the public have been taken aback by the decision of an older couple – albeit an admired, “celebrity” couple – to end a marriage?

Carr: We’re always surprised when a couple divorces after many years of marriage, especially when they look so “happy” to the outside world. The Gore divorce shows that we never really know what goes on in someone else’s marriage. And, when we witness a seemingly happy marriage end, we often question the quality of our own marriages, and ask, “Could this happen to me?” Divorce is still rare among older couples. Most marriages end within the first seven years. Just 7 percent of men and 9 percent of women age 65 and older are currently divorced and not remarried. And, only two out of every 1,000 persons age 65 and older will divorce in a given year.

Rutgers Today: Do older Americans divorce for different reasons than their younger counterparts, and do the psychosocial mechanisms for recovery from divorce differ by age and the gender of partners?

Most marriages end within the first seven years. Just 7 percent of men and 9 percent of women age 65 and older are divorced and not remarried.

Carr: The main reasons that younger couples divorce are financial problems, infidelity, and stresses of family life.  For older adults, divorce rarely is triggered by one event but often happens when couples realize they’re not fulfilled or happy anymore. Often, as people get older, they want to ensure their remaining years are as joyful as possible.

Recovery from divorce is hard. For women, it often brings stressful financial declines as they lose their husband’s income. According to some estimates, a divorced woman loses one-third of the pension and Social Security benefits she and her husband would have received as a couple. For men, divorce often means the loss of one’s primary confidante and helpmate. When couples divorce, husbands often struggle to maintain their health and social ties.

In many ways, divorce is easier for older adults, as younger adults often must juggle their new singlehood with childrearing and full-time paid work. But because divorce is relatively rare among older adults, these newly single people might receive little understanding and support from others. They also may encounter anger, hostility, or confusion from their grown children and friends. Those people need to understand that those who divorce believe they’ll be happier on their own or with a new partner. Also, older adults struggling with health problems or physical limitations can find maintaining their own home challenging. Although many men cope by remarrying, for women this often isn't an option as there are three available women per every one available man among persons age 65-plus.

Rutgers Today: If the effects of marital dissolution vary widely, what are the policy and practice implications to ease this often difficult lifestyle transition?

Carr: The first is financial security, especially for women. Social Security payments are tied to one’s earnings when one was younger. Because women take time out of work to care for their families, they earn less than men over time, and thus receive smaller monthly payments. Although some divorced women receive some payments based on their husband’s earnings, there are many restrictions on this practice, and not all women benefit.

Divorce is time-consuming and emotionally draining. Workplace policies could be flexible in allowing paid leave or flexible work hours for those who are in distress. For individuals who are highly distressed and require long-term counseling, the expenses are very high and not fully reimbursed by insurance. For the uninsured, professional help may be out of the question financially. Policies to help give distressed persons access to high quality mental health care – even if just a few visits – would be valuable.

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