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Later Life Families

Characteristics Of Later Life Families

Brubaker (1990) notes that later life families are characterized by the presence of three, four, and even five generations. Family structures with four or five generations but relatively few people in each generation are referred to as beanpole families (Bengtson, Rosenthal, and Burton 1990). Families in which successive generations have children at an earlier age, resulting in smaller age differences between the generations, are referred to as agecondensed families. In contrast, families in which successive generations delay childbearing, resulting in larger age differences between the generations, are referred to as age-gapped families. The number of individuals in each generation—as well as the age differences between the generations—influences familial relationships in later life. For example, the beanpole family structure is associated with the concept of the sandwich generation, in which the middle generation, particularly women, experiences simultaneous demands to care for aging relatives and dependent children. The burden experienced by the sandwich generation is augmented by the lack of family members with whom caregiving tasks may be shared. Although it is thought to be the most common family form, Peter Uhlenberg (1993) states that the prevalence of the beanpole family structure has been exaggerated. Carolyn Rosenthal (2000) points out that relatively few women experience being sandwiched between the competing demands of their parents and children. Rosenthal (2000) asserts that daughters are more likely to be providing active help to their aged parents when they themselves are older and their children have been launched, thus there is a decreased likelihood of having conflicting roles. Nevertheless, smaller or larger age differences between the generations may influence the nature and duration of intergenerational relationships as well as the type and extent of help and care exchanged between the generations.

At the same time, family structures in later life vary as a result of social, demographic, and cultural differences. Although longevity continues to increase around the world, there are notable distinctions between developed and developing countries as well as between men and women. For example, the World Health Organization (2000) reports that healthy life-expectancy rates range from approximately 75 years in Japan to less than 26 years in Sierra Leone. Women tend to outlive men by seven or eight years in developed countries, whereas men and women have similar life expectancy rates in developing countries (World Health Organization 2000). Life-expectancy differences have an impact on later life familial relationships such that in some countries three- and four-generation families are more common than in others. With increasing longevity, later life becomes a normative life-course stage. In contrast, in some developing countries low life expectancy renders the experience of later life less common and the definition of old age is much younger than in developed countries (Albert and Cattell 1994). Moreover, differing cultural values lead to diversity in norms surrounding old age and intergenerational relations. In some countries, such as Japan and China, older relatives hold a special place of honor in the family and there are strong social norms that dictate that adult children provide care and shelter for aged family members (Thorson 2000).

Later life grandparents usually have teenage or young adult grandchildren. Using the Internet has been a popular way for grandparents and grandchildren to communicate. TOM STEWART/CORBIS

Despite differences in family structure, later life families tend to share another characteristic identified by Timothy Brubaker (1990), namely family history. Brubaker (1990) points out that later life families have a long and rich "reservoir of experience." As well as having well-established patterns of interactions, later life families may also be characterized by "unfinished business or tensions" (Brubaker 1990, p. 16) arising from events that happened earlier in the family's history.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesLater Life Families - Defining Later Life Families, Characteristics Of Later Life Families, Couple Relationships In Later Life, Retirement And Couple Relationships - Conclusion