6 Pages

Family and Aging Policy

ByFrancis G. Caro

Historically, in “advanced” societies the emergence of public interventions to address special needs of elders can be traced to the limitations of families. In earlier eras in these societies, families were the primary source of assistance for dependent elders. In those times, the vast majority of those who survived to old age lived within multigenerational households. In part, public interventions to assist dependent elders in advanced societies are a reflection of the fact that both extended and nuclear families have weakened. Significant numbers of elders do not have relatives to call upon when they need assistance. Public interventions also have their origins in some substantial needs of elders that greatly exceed the capacity of families to provide help. (Other major factors also contributed to the emergence of significant public sector intervention including economic development, which has provided the financial underpinnings.)

The family ties of elders in advanced societies are varied and highly complex. Elders who have no significant family involvement are the exception. For the majority of older people, many aspects of the aging experience tend to unfold in a family context. Examples of the family and aging connection are abundant. The timing of retirement is often the reflection of the agenda of married couples. For elders who are married, financial security is a reflection of joint income and assets. For married elders who co-reside with their spouses, housing choices are choices of couples (and sometimes other family members). For elders who co-reside with adult children, housing is a multigenerational family matter. For elders who need long-term care, unpaid relatives tend to be the first source of care and the most important source of long-term care. Family members are often involved with elders in negotiating the health care system. These examples illustrate the fact that, in the key areas of income security, housing, long-term care, and health care, the welfare of individual elders is often a reflection of their family circumstances.