Today more than 1 in every 3 baby boomers — that huge glut of people born between 1948 and 1964 — is unmarried. And those unmarried boomers are disproportionately women. As this vast generation rushes into retirement, there's a growing concern among experts on aging: Who will take care of all these people when they're too old to care for themselves?
It's a question many of the experts take personally. "That is what scares me," says Sara Rix, who works for the AARP Public Policy Institute, studying the economic prospects of women in the workforce. "Because I am one of those people," she says, "and I do think about it."
"Oh, I've got wonderful nieces and nephews," Rix says, noting that's what a lot of her boomer peers claim, too. "Well, in fact, they've got their families. They've got their in-laws. They've got their parents. And I don't think it's reasonable to expect much out of them."
Kathleen Kelly, who runs the Family Caregiver Alliance and the National Center on Caregiving in San Francisco, says she's seeing the same sort of concern in her social circle. "I'm in my 50s, and my friends are all talking about, 'Could we all move in together? Could we buy an apartment building and all live together?' There are all sorts of permutations of this conversation," Kelly says. "But it really is something that people are thinking about, particularly women."
And, because boomers are boomers, some are doing more than just thinking about it. Already, there's a small but apparently growing movement of boomer women forming group houses with their single peers.
One of those homes belongs to Bonnie Moore, a 60-something divorcee who lives in a well-kept, five-bedroom house in Bowie, Md., a cozy suburb of Washington, D.C.
To stay in her house after her divorce, Moore needed financial help. But she wanted to do more than just add boarders who would help pay the bills, she says. The home she's organized instead is "a little bit like family, a little bit like roommates, a little bit like a sorority house," she says from the sofa of her softly lit living room. "It just evolves."
Moore, an attorney, isn't actually childless. She has a grown son who lives in Utah and has been urging Moore to move there to be closer to him and his family. "He's just sort of saying, 'Well, Mom you're old now; we have to take care of you,' " Moore says. "And I'm saying, 'I'm not old. I've got 20 years out there in my yard, thank you very much,' " she says with a laugh.
Moore has been careful about selecting as housemates women who get along, but who also have a sense of independence. "All of us, we have our own separate lives," she says. "We do our own separate things, but we'll meet up in the kitchen and chitchat. And then we'll all go our different ways, which makes it nice. None of us are joined at the hip, and yet we all live together and do our own thing and live in the same house."
Lorene Solivan is one of Moore's three current roommates — "the youngest," Solivan says proudly, having just turned 60.
Solivan, an event manager for a food company, had been living in an apartment in Northern Virginia. But she was having financial troubles of her own and was looking to downsize.
"And then I saw the ad on Craigslist: GOLDEN GIRLS HOUSE. I said, 'Oh, that looks like fun,' " she says.
Solivan, who does much of the group's cooking, says it's been a nice transition for her. To live with a built-in social group of people your own age is "a big plus," she says, "whether you're 20, 40, or 60 — whatever the case may be."
That's why Moore is trying to take her concept and expand it. She already has a website and is working on a guide to help other single boomer women set up houses like hers. "I think it'll be fun," she says. "And I'd like to be part of various seminars and workshops for women [about] the whole idea of living communally and learning to get along in this kind of environment."
Still, there are a lot of obstacles. One big one is that most boomers don't realize they might need help getting or paying for long-term care if their health falters.
"I call it the 70-70-70 conundrum," says Bruce Chernof, president and CEO of The SCAN Foundation, which focuses on long-term health care issues. "Seventy percent of people over the age of 65 will need some form of long-term-care supports as they age," he says. But when you look at polling, "roughly 70 percent of Americans don't actually think they're likely to need it, and roughly 70 percent think Medicare will probably cover it when they get there."
The problem, of course, he adds, is that "those last two 70 percents are not true."
Then there's the numbers problem. "We know that ... about a third of baby boomers are single," says Kelly. "But we also know that there's a large percentage of those that are in their 50s and 60s [who] are getting divorced, and so we're going to have more single individuals in the future. We just haven't seen this before."
At the same time, most boomers have had fewer children than previous generations did, and many boomers have no children.
"So there's less adult children to take the place of the caregiving cohort that currently is providing ... caregiving to their parents," she says. And today, family caregiving provides an estimated $450 billion a year worth of unpaid care.
Rix of AARP says a big problem for single boomer women is that they're not financially prepared to hire the caregivers they might need if they don't have family members to volunteer the time. "[These single women] are still likely to be concentrated in what we've traditionally called the 'pink collar' jobs," she says, which are "the lower-wage, low-benefit occupations. So when they reach old age, they often reach old age without pension coverage."
Most of these women will have Social Security, Rix says — assuming that they are eligible, and that the rules don't change between now and when they retire. But for many older women, that will be all, or nearly all the money they have to live on, she says, "and it's not going to pay for a lot of care — formal care. So it's a frightening future for a lot of women."
There are things women can do to make that future a little less frightening, says Kelly. Some suggestions are pretty obvious, like maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle.
But another bit of advice may be less intuitive, Kelly says, "and that is to invest in social relationships and networks." She doesn't mean the sort of social networks people create on the Internet, but rather, "a community of individuals [living with or near you, so] that you may be able to share tasks and responsibilities as you grow older."
That brings us back to Bonnie Moore, who says that deciding to form a group house was about more than just financial necessity. "I think women naturally are more community oriented," Moore says. "It's just part of the woman's nature."
And besides, she adds, "to come home and have someone say, 'Hi, how was your day?' ... That's really nice sometimes."
So if you're a boomer and you liked that group house you shared in college or just after, good for you. The United States is one of the few developed nations that have no organized public policy for providing long-term care — so group living may be in your future as well as your past.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Americans are living longer than ever before, and as seniors approach their golden years, most are cared for primarily by an immediate family member, a spouse or their children. Having children, in some ways, is a sort-of long-term insurance policy.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
But as life expectancy continues to rise, more and more women are living and aging without spouses or children, and are likely to face an interesting situation: Who will care for them when the time comes?
GREENE: As part of our series on the Changing Lives of Women, NPR's Julie Rovner looks at the long-term care conundrum.
BONNIE MOORE: Welcome to our house. I'm Bonnie. Come on in.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Bonnie Moore is a pert, 60-something lawyer and accountable who lives in well-kept, five-bedroom house in a cozy suburb about a half-hour outside Washington, D.C. You can tell she's used to giving the grand tour.
MOORE: I'll show you my pride and joy - my kitchen. We bought an old house, and we've been remodeling it.
ROVNER: Lorene Solivan is one of her three housemates.
LORENE SOLIVAN: And I'm the youngest.
MOORE: She's the youngest, yeah. How do you like that?
ROVNER: She just turned 60. Lorene had been living on her own in an apartment in Northern Virginia, but she wanted to downsize.
SOLIVAN: And I saw the ad on Craigslist: Golden Girls House. I said oh, that sounds like fun.
ROVNER: Which is just what Bonnie had in mind when she started her little enterprise.
MOORE: It's a little bit like family, a little bit like roommates, a little bit like a sorority house. It just evolves.
ROVNER: The four roommates share expenses, some cooking, and they even throw parties together sometimes. They also look out for each other's medical needs. Bonnie said it was a huge help when she was hospitalized recently for her diabetes.
MOORE: When I was in the hospital, they were bringing me the stuff that I needed, and this and that.
ROVNER: The whole idea started after her divorce. Bonnie needed financial help to stay in the house where she'd put down roots, including out in her beloved garden. She has a grown son in Utah. He offered to build her a house out there, but she was adamant about staying in Maryland.
MOORE: He's just sort of saying, well, Mom, you're old now. We have to take care of you. And I'm saying, I'm not old. I've got 20 more years out there in my yard, thank you very much.
ROVNER: Now, Bonnie's got big plans to grow things other than plants and flowers. She's working on a guide to help other single boomer women set up group houses like hers.
MOORE: I think it'll be fun. And I'd like to be part of various seminars and workshops for women - you know, the whole idea of living communally and learning to get along in this kind of environment.
ROVNER: Which would be a good thing because even experts in aging are scratching their heads about what's going to happen to the huge generation of increasingly single childless women as they age. Sara Rix, of the AARP Public Policy Institute, studies the economic prospects of women in the workforce. She's also a single boomer herself.
SARA RIX: I think that's one of the scariest questions because I fall into that category. And I say oh, I've got wonderful nieces and nephews. Well, in fact, they've got their families. They've got their in-laws. They've got their parents, and I don't think it's reasonable to expect much out of them.
ROVNER: Across the country, in San Francisco, Kathleen Kelly says she's seeing the same sort of concern in her social circle.
KATHLEEN KELLY: I'm in my 50s, and my friends are all talking about, could we all move in together? Could we buy an apartment building, and all live together? There's all sorts of permutations on this conversation.
ROVNER: Kelly's executive director of the National Center on Caregiving. The numbers are, in a word, daunting.
KELLY: About a third of baby boomers are single, but we also know that there is a large percentage of those that are in their 50s and 60s that are getting divorced. And so we're going to have more single individuals, in the future. We just haven't seen this before.
ROVNER: And many boomers have had fewer or no children, compared to previous generations. There were nearly twice as many American women without children in 2008 as there were in 1976, according to a White House report on women.
KELLY: So there's less adult children to take the place of the caregiving cohort that currently is providing caregiving to their parents.
ROVNER: Family caregiving that currently provides an estimated $450 billion a year worth of care - meaning that the mostly women boomers now caring for their parents may be unprepared for their own future. Sara Rix, of AARP, says a big problem for single boomer women is that they may lack the financial ability to hire the caregivers they might need if they don't have family members to provide it.
RIX: They are still likely to be concentrated in what we've traditionally called the pink-collar jobs: the lower-wage, low-benefit occupations. And so when they reach old age, they often reach old age without pension coverage.
ROVNER: They will, or at least should, have Social Security, she says. But for many older women, that will be all - or nearly all - they have to live on.
RIX: And it's not going to pay for a lot of care, formal care. So it's a frightening future.
ROVNER: But there are things women can do, says Kathleen Kelly of the National Center on Caregiving. Some of them are pretty obvious, like maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle. But another piece of her advice may not be so intuitive.
KELLY: And that is to invest in social relationships and networks - not the kind that are on the Internet, necessarily, but the kind that you build a community of individuals that may - you may be able to share tasks and responsibilities as you grow older.
ROVNER: Which brings us back to Bonnie Moore, of the Golden Girls house in Maryland. She says having people around was a financial necessity, but it's become a lot more than that.
MOORE: It's just the nature of women, you know. And to come home and have someone say, hi, how was your day? That's really nice sometimes.
ROVNER: Roommate Lorene Solivan agrees.
SOLIVAN: To have your own social group your own age, whether you're 20, 40, 60 - whatever the case may be - is a big plus, I think.
ROVNER: So if you're a boomer and you liked that group house you lived in, in college or just after? Good for you because the U.S. is one of the few developed nations that has no organized public policy for providing long-term care. So group living may be something in your future as well as your past.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
WERTHEIMER: And there's more from our Changing Lives of Women series online, where we're asking NPR women about their careers and inviting you to join the conversation. Long-time congressional correspondent Cokie Roberts weighed in on how she found support in the workplace.
GREENE: She says her female friends always rallied behind her, and she had the advantage of having them right here with her at NPR.
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Let's start with the fact that Linda Wertheimer and Nina Totenberg lobbied -that's the polite term - the powers that were to get me hired in the first place. Later, when the three of us had desks together two NPR homes ago, one of our male colleagues dubbed our corner "The Fallopian Jungle." He is long gone. We are not.
GREENE: Linda, I'm speechless. The fallopian jungle - someone actually said that?
WERTHEIMER: A little bit of "Mad Men" at old-time NPR. But things have changed a lot since then, of course. You would never say anything like that, David.
GREENE: I would never say that, Linda. You can be assured. Well, you can read Cokie Roberts' full essay at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.