On the day she decided to sell her wedding ring, Katie Dunn tucked the gleaming band into a Ziploc bag. The ring had been designed for her nearly two decades earlier, with swirls of yellow and white gold symbolizing the romance she had prayed would endure. But as she approached her 60s, her dreams and her marriage dissolved in resentment and regret.
“I wasn't sentimental,” said Dunn, 55, who sold her ring last summer to a jeweler near her hometown of Denmark, Maine. “I was like, it's time to let this go.”
And with that, she joined the growing number of men and women in their 50s and 60s who are opting out of marriage and venturing into old age on their own.
Over the past 20 years, the divorce rate among baby boomers has surged more than 50 percent, even as divorce rates overall have stabilized nationally. At the same time, more adults are remaining single. The shift is changing the traditional portrait of older Americans: About a third of adults ages 46 through 64 were divorced, separated or had never been married in 2010, compared with 13 percent in 1970, according to an analysis of recently released census data conducted by demographers at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio.
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Sociologists expect those numbers to rise sharply in coming decades as younger people, who have far lower rates of marriage than their elders, move into middle age.
Susan L. Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State, said the trend would transform the lives of many older people.
The elderly, who have traditionally relied on spouses for their care, will increasingly struggle to fend for themselves. And federal and local governments will have to shoulder much of the cost of their care. Unmarried baby boomers are five times more likely to live in poverty than their married counterparts, statistics show. They are also three times as likely to receive food stamps, public assistance or disability payments.
“We can't just say that older people don't get divorced or that middle-aged people won't grow old alone,” said Brown, who analyzed the census data with I-Fen Lin, an associate professor of sociology at Bowling Green State. The research was published online in The Gerontologist. “Now we actually need to pay attention to it, not only to the factors that precipitate it, but also to the consequences,” Brown said.
The surge in the number of older, unmarried Americans has been driven by several factors, including longevity, economics and evolving social mores, according to sociologists.
People are living longer, and many couples in their 50s and 60s – faced with the prospect of a decade or more in unhappy marriages – are reluctant to stay the course. Women, who are increasingly financially independent, are more willing and able to go it alone.
And many baby boomers, who came of age during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, feel less social pressure to marry or stay married than their parents and grandparents did. (Only about 17 percent of adults older than 64 in 2010 were divorced, separated or had never been married, census data show.) Being divorced or single later in life also no longer carries the stigma that it did for previous generations.
Even as they mourn their marriages and worry about financial security and retirement, many divorced people describe a sense of liberation. Dunn, who has two children, wept through her divorce proceedings. She and her husband, a carpenter whose business was battered by the recession, grew apart after 18 years of marriage, despite their efforts to reconcile. “I always wanted to be with someone for the long haul,” she said.
But during this winter on her own, she has treasured her time alone, taking time to meditate on quiet weekday mornings and going on hiking trips with friends through the snowy mountains.
Robert Dellaert, 55, who moved from California to Florida to be closer to his mother after he and his wife split, started a seaplane tourism business once he got used to life on his own. He also met and moved in with his current girlfriend.
Dellaert is in growing company. In 2010, about 12 percent of unmarried adults ages 50 through 64 were living together but not married, up from 7 percent in 2000, census data show. “Making a new start really gave me a lot of joy,” he said.
Most unmarried baby boomers are living alone, however, and many are struggling to adjust to new worries about the future. Some are grappling with the ailments of older age. Others are mourning the loss of spouses and the collapse of social circles that for decades had revolved around their married friends.
Heidi Williams, 51, who was supported by disability checks and her husband's salary, had to find a part-time job after she was divorced last year. She has a genetic form of emphysema, which she discovered in her 40s, and relies on an oxygen concentrator to get through the day.
She has come to terms with the breakup of her 19-year marriage – “In some respects, it was the best decision,” she says – but she worries about the years to come. She is raising two teenage children and has far too many bills to save for retirement.
“In the back of my mind, I'm thinking, ‘What is going to happen to me?“’ said Williams, who works as a customer-service representative from her home in Elizabethtown, Ky. “I think about that every day: one day very soon that may be me in a walker. But for right now, I just kind of tamp down the screaming voices inside of me. Whatever happens is going to happen.”
Laura Stillman, 62, a sales manager at a television station in Raleigh, N.C., who was recently divorced after 27 years of marriage, fills her free time with yoga, tennis, swimming and socializing with friends. She has also gone out on a few dates. But she still misses the companionship of her marriage and worries that she may have to hire a nurse someday if she falls ill, since she no longer has a husband to count on.
“It makes me very sad,” said Stillman, who has several friends who have recently divorced. “Maybe as a society we don't fight hard enough to stay together anymore.”
William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, warns many unmarried baby boomers will confront greater economic hardships than their married parents and grandparents, and their married counterparts. Many members of this generation, which has been battered by the recession, have fewer children and thinner financial cushions in savings and pensions.
“It means a whole different world for seniors,” Frey said.
Dunn said she tries not to think too hard about retirement or getting old. She runs a campground from April through October and supplements her income by coaching lacrosse at a local high school. She has no health insurance and no pension to rely on. She lives in an 18th-century farmhouse she inherited from her father, and it needs repairs she cannot afford. She said she will probably have to sell some land that she owns to make ends meet when she is too old or too infirm to work.
Even so, Dunn still savors her freedom. She is not dating at the moment and has no plans to remarry.
“When I think about the future, sometimes it's with trepidation,” she said. “But this is the life I've got. It's up to me to make it what I want.”