When her sister died three years ago, Ms. Ingersoll joined the ranks of older Americans considered “kinless”: without partners or spouses, children or siblings. Covid-19 has largely suspended her occasional get-togethers with friends, too. Now, she said, “my social life consists of doctors and store clerks — that’s a joke, but it’s pretty much true.”
Among older couples, cohabitation has increased as an alternative to marriage, but those seniors are less likely than married couples to receive care from their partners. Those in committed relationships who don’t live with their partners are less likely still.
In addition, seniors who are Black, female and have lower levels of wealth have particularly high rates of kinlessness.
The growing number of kinless seniors, who sometimes call themselves “elder orphans” or “solo agers,” worries researchers and advocates, because this group faces numerous disadvantages.
Of course, having family is no guarantee of help as people age. Estrangement, geographic distance and relatives’ own declining health can render them unwilling or unable to serve as caregivers.
Still, “our system of caring for the aged has functioned, for better or worse, on the backs of spouses and, secondarily, adult children,” said Susan Brown, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University and an author of the study of sole family survivors.
There’s a lot of talk about different kinds of marriage penalties in the tax code (when being legally married puts you at a disadvantage relative to...