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Post-50 divorce rate doubled in 20 years Factors include aging, loss of stigma, financial concerns

  • Chicago Tribune
  • Published Wednesday, March 6, 2013, at 11:09 p.m.

— One day in 2011, Virginia Koerber, Lake Villa, Ill., recalled, she “woke up with a new life.” At 65, she got divorced.

“At an age when I had thought we’d travel and be retired, I was on my own,” she said.

People may marry with “forever” intentions, Koerber said, noting that her parents were married for 56 years, but “it doesn’t always turn out that way.”

Now, Koerber is part of a growing club: people who divorce after age 50. The divorce rate for this group doubled between 1990 and 2010, according to a study by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

“This surprised us, because the rate for younger people has leveled off,” said lead researcher Susan Brown, a sociology professor. “In 1990, only 1 in 10 divorces were people 50 and older. Now it’s 1 in 4.”

Brown attributes the increase to more seniors (“that huge segment of baby boomers”), more women with careers (“they don’t have to stay in empty-shell marriages for the money”) and more people ignoring their churches’ no-divorce rules.

Ironically, Brown said, some of the same factors that invigorate longtime marriages, such as children leaving home, cause others to end.

“The kids are gone, the marriage has been over for a while and one spouse decides she can’t take it anymore,” said James Pritikin, a Chicago-based lawyer and a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

The over-50 divorce rate is even higher among those who remarried.

“They have a lot of complications because of stepchildren and financial and health care decisions,” Brown said. “But they also know they can divorce, that life goes on.”

Demographics affect late-in-life divorces, the study found. The more education, the lower the rate. The unemployed divorce more than workers do; retirees have the lowest rate.

Looking ahead, the study predicted that even if the over-50 divorce rate remains steady, the numbers of divorces will climb because of the aging population.

Society will be affected by the “graying of divorce,” Brown said. “We need to look at these people the way we’ve looked at widowhood. Many need help financially. They had fewer kids, and the kids aren’t always nearby, so they more often have to look outside the family for caregiving.”

The needs of divorcing clients past 50 are different from those of younger clients, Pritikin said.

“We have to make sure the ex has health insurance, which may mean getting COBRA (temporary health insurance) through her ex’s plan until she is eligible for Medicare,” he said. “The spouse who doesn’t have job skills may need (alimony). The most troubling part is the bulk of the marital estate is often tied up in home equity, but the home is worth less now or they’re underwater with their mortgage.”

Even among seniors, said Pritikin, age makes a difference in attitude.

“People in their 50s and 60s are ready to get on with their lives,” he said. “But the 80-year-old is angry. She’s going to be alone at a point when she didn’t expect this.”

The good news, Pritikin said, is society’s changing view of divorce.

“Used to be, you and your kids were tainted. Not now. The stigma is gone.”

Overall, Koerber considers herself lucky.

“My kids have their own lives, but they’re here for me if I need them,” she said. “My income is low, but at least I have a job and a house. I’m healthy. You know who my biggest support system is? Divorced girlfriends. We look out for each other.”

Long-married couple share insights

Humor, family and traditions build bonds – and so does some “apart” time.

“She’s the upbeat one. I’m the crabby one,” said Bob Rosebraugh of his bride of 67 years, Martha.

It is this kind of humor, plus Martha’s ever-present laugh, that buoyed the Wheaton, Ill., couple to their golden anniversary and beyond.

Despite the increasing divorce rate among people ages 50-plus, the percentage of couples married 50 or more years increased from 4.8 in 1996 to 6.2 in 2009 (the most recent year tallied), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Rosebraughs count several of their longtime friends among this demographic trend, although Martha added that most are younger. She is 88 and Bob is 90.

Marrying during a simpler time helped them, they said.

“It was after the war, when getting married seemed the natural thing to do,” recalled Bob, a retired pilot, who fell for the 16-year-old Martha before World War II.

“Women mostly stayed home with the kids then, which made it easier,” said Martha, a homemaker. “Today, both (spouses) have to work. Families have debts. In many ways, it’s harder now.”

Good health, the ability to take care of each other, vacation memories and nearby children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren help solidify their marriage, the couple said.

Time apart helps, too, even if “apart” means the other side of their Wyndemere Senior Living Community apartment.

“I used to play bridge with my friends while he played golf with his,” Martha said. “Now we each have our own TV, so he can watch sports in the front room and I can watch the History Channel or, believe it or not, Lawrence Welk in the bedroom.”

“Yep,” Bob said. “And together, we watch golf.”

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