Since the 1990s, divorce among adults 50+ has doubled, according to a Pew Research poll. People under the age of 50 have seen declining divorce rates, but later-in-life divorce (often termed “grey divorce”) continues to climb. Many researchers are studying why this is occurring, while families and senior living communities are on the frontlines, dealing with the real-life fallout from the ending of marriages.
Before we can understand how to handle grey divorces, we should probably understand the reasons why they are happening. An article on HuffPost, dated September 2015, actually laid out a pros and cons list for those who are “di-curious” and considering a divorce after 50. Reasons cited in favor of divorce included the ability to more easily meet new people (such as when moving into a retirement community), rediscovering of one’s sense of self, new sexual experiences and a freedom to engage in new hobbies that the previous spouse may not have been interested in. Of course, the cons list included issues like loneliness, feeling out of place among married friends and having to handle all of life’s challenges alone after many years of interdependent marriage.
With all of this in mind, we generally see a couple of trends for the reasons that people get divorced after 50. First, as attitudes toward divorce have changed in America, so have the attitudes of those growing older. The stigma of divorce used to be strong; today, it’s become more normalized. As such, older adults now feel less social pressure to remain in relationships that aren’t working for them. Of course, these divorces are enabled by “irreconcilable differences,” the modern catch-all phrase for when couples can’t seem to get along anymore. With children out of the nest, and the daily grind of work coming to an end, many couples find that spending so much time together in retirement is much harder than they had anticipated. They realize just how far they’ve grown apart and start to consider life beyond the marriage. Of course, these kinds of conversations can and do happen after a couple moves into a retirement community, creating a very murky situation, indeed.
Another sad trend that directly affects grey divorce and senior living is financial issues. There are more than a few instances where being divorced leads to a better financial situation for those involved. When nursing expenses become income-based, and one spouse was the breadwinner for years, the couple can be left holding a bill they weren’t prepared to pay. If divorced, those costs could be significantly reduced. What a terrible option this must be — pay to keep your marriage alive or divorce and keep yourself out of the poorhouse!
So, with all of this in mind, what can aging services providers do to help?
First, recognize that just because a couple has been married for 25, 30 or even 40+ years, there may still be issues in that relationship that you can’t control or understand. Everyone loves to say, “Awwww!” when they see an older couple holding hands, but for every couple like that, there is another that struggles to stay together every day. Having your pastoral care staff and social workers prepared to deal with marital issues in retirement is a great first step in providing resources for your residents.
We also advise that directors, admissions and marketing associates have a standardized plan in place for when a couple decides they are going to divorce after moving into the community. How will you handle the finances? Who moves out? What happens to the apartment or cottage? Taking a little time to think about these issues before they arise not only helps your organization better manage the situation, but it makes the transition easier and more respectful for the residents in question.
While the grey divorce trend can be unsettling for community managers, adult children and other residents of a community, it is an issue that is on the rise. We would like to think that every relationship will be able to grow and mature into retirement, but we know that not all will. It behooves aging services professionals to understand and plan for these changes now, before they are presented with them.