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Golden Years Are Active Years, Study Shows

Document date: July 28, 2005
Released online: July 28, 2005

Contact: Stu Kantor, (202) 261-5283, skantor@ui.urban.org

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 28, 2005—Rocking chairs, shuffleboard matches, and card games are getting stiff competition from paid work, volunteering, and caregiving in the lives of older Americans, new research from the Urban Institute shows.

Almost 80 percent of those age 55 and older spend time working, volunteering for an organization, taking care of family members, or helping people outside their own households. They average nearly 1,300 hours at these labors. Nine out of 10 adults age 55 to 64 take part in at least one activity. Engagement declines with age, but remains high. Eight out of 10 adults 65-74 and almost 6 in 10 age 75 and older participate in one or more activities.

"These findings contrast sharply with the image of older Americans as unengaged adults living out their older years solely in pursuit of leisure and rest," researchers Sheila Zedlewski and Simone Schaner commented. "Nonetheless, the results also suggest room to expand engagement opportunities. Unengaged or less engaged older adults represent an untapped resource."

The potential contributions of older adults will grow rapidly as baby boomers age, Zedlewski and Schaner point out in "Older Adults' Engagement Should Be Recognized and Encouraged." Three in 10 Americans will be 55 or older by 2030, up from 2 in 10 today. Currently, 65.4 million people are 55 or older.

This brief and two others issued today by the Urban Institute use data from the 2002 Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of adults 55 and older. The survey is conducted for the National Institute on Aging by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

Satisfaction with Retirement

Most older adults are highly satisfied with retirement (62 percent), but 33 percent are only somewhat satisfied and 6 percent are dissatisfied.

At the same time, the Institute's Barbara Butrica and Simone Schaner show in "Satisfaction and Engagement in Retirement," engaged seniors are more likely than their unengaged counterparts to be very satisfied with retirement, regardless of age, sex, race, marital status, education, mental and physical health, and income. But retirees involved only in caregiving are significantly less likely to be very satisfied than uninvolved retirees.

Helping at Home

In "Many Older Americans Engage in Caregiving Activities," Richard Johnson and Simone Schaner observe that 39 percent of older adults care for their parents, in-laws, frail spouses, children, or grandchildren. They average 580 hours a year in caregiving.

Older men are just as likely as older women to spend time caring for their families, challenging the conventional wisdom that family care is women's work. However, women caregivers devote more time (648 hours a year) than men (489 hours).

Many caregivers juggle family responsibilities with work demands and their own health needs. Among those age 55 to 64, half of full-time workers care for family members. And 34 percent of those age 55 and older in fair or poor health serve as caregivers.

Additional Findings: Types and Intensity of Engagement

  • Older Americans volunteer at similar rates throughout the age distribution, with about 3 in 10 devoting time to formal volunteering.
  • Most older Americans diversify their activities, with 52 percent taking on two or more tasks. Yet, almost 2 in 10 adults age 65 to 74 and 4 in 10 adults age 75 and older do not engage in any of these activities.

  • African Americans and Hispanics are less likely to be engaged than their white counterparts. Hispanics age 65 and older are least likely to be working, volunteering, or caregiving.
  • Across the age spectrum, low-income individuals engage in these activities less often than higher-income seniors.

Additional Findings: Retirement Satisfaction

  • Seniors who are more active appear more satisfied with retirement. For example, older adults who report being very satisfied with retirement are nearly 1.5 times more likely to participate in multiple activities (42 percent) than dissatisfied older adults (29 percent).
  • Relatively fewer very satisfied retirees are inactive (25 percent) than dissatisfied retirees (38 percent).
  • Dissatisfied retirees are more than twice as likely to be caregivers as very satisfied retirees.
  • For most, retirement satisfaction rises as the amount of activity approaches 500 hours. Beyond that, satisfaction seems unrelated to hours spent.

Additional Findings: Caregiving Activities

  • 51 percent of adults age 55 to 64 provide care to family members, compared with 38 percent of those age 65 to 74 and 19 percent of those age 75 and older.
  • Grandchild care is the most common caregiving activity, pursued by nearly one-quarter of older adults, followed by parent care, spouse care, and child care.
  • 7 percent of adults age 55 and older care for multiple generations of relatives.
  • Spouse helpers average 1,443 hours of family care a year, compared with 541 hours for parent caregivers and 474 hours for grandchild caregivers.
  • 87 percent of adults age 55 and older with frail spouses and 67 percent of those with frail parents serve as caregivers.

Perspectives on Productive Aging Series

The three briefs are part of Perspectives on Productive Aging, a new research series documenting the value of engagement among older adults and highlighting the best ways for society and policymakers to support and encourage the full engagement of older Americans. Forthcoming publications will cover volunteering, work, the economic value of engagement, factors affecting the level of activity, and transitions from career work to other kinds of activity.

Perspectives on Aging is supported through a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies. It is part of the Urban Institute's Retirement Project (http://www.urban.org/retirement).

"Older Adults' Engagement Should Be Recognized and Encouraged," by Sheila Zedlewski and Simone Schaner, is available at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=311201. "Satisfaction and Engagement in Retirement," by Barbara Butrica and Simone Schaner, can be found at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=311202. "Many Older Americans Engage in Caregiving Activities," by Richard Johnson and Simone Schaner, can be accessed at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=311203.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.

Topics/Tags: | Health/Healthcare | Retirement and Older Americans

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