Living Arrangements and Well-being of Older Persons in the Past: A Case Study

Type Working Paper
Title Living Arrangements and Well-being of Older Persons in the Past: A Case Study
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 1999
Analysis of long-run changes in the living arrangements and economic well being
of the aged is limited by the lack of consistent data sources across time and space. Some
fragmentary evidence on the living arrangements of the aged in several European and
North American countries before the mid-twentieth century is summarized in table 1.
The numbers should be interpreted cautiously. The earliest estimates are especially
suspect, since we generally lack information about the enumeration procedures or
completeness of the surviving pre-nineteenth century listings of inhabitants. Even in the
nineteenth century, there was significant variation in census concepts and definitions
among countries and across time (Ruggles and Brower, forthcoming). Moreover, the
processing of the existing historical data have not followed standardized procedures from
study to study, and we have little information of the representativeness of the local
studies. Therefore it would be premature to make too much of the apparent trends and
differences shown in table 1. Despite all these qualifications, however, we can be
confident that that prior to the twentieth century most elderly in Europe and North
America resided with their children and that residing alone was exceedingly rare.
Today, the great majority of the aged populations of North America and Europe
reside alone or with only their spouse. Moreover, recent studies suggest that the
percentage of the aged who live alone has also begun to rise in many Asian and Latin
American countries (Hermalin and Ofstedal, 1996; Uhlenberg, 1996; Martin, 1989;
DeVos, 1995). Taken as a whole, the evidence suggests that the shift towards
independent residence of the aged is a worldwide phenomenon.

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