When we get to a certain age in life, our personal relationships become essential to our care and well-being. We often rely on the help and support of family and friends, neighbors, and community organizations to do things we can longer do by ourselves.
It’s one part of a noble and just exchange of social capital. After all, it’s only fitting that we care for the older generations who have helped raise us, and who remain important, admired members of our families and communities.
But unfortunately, these relationships are weakening in our society, and our elderly are increasingly aging alone.
According to a recent report by the Joint Economic Committee which examines the social support of adults approaching retirement age (ages 61–63), nearly every kind of social relationship examined has declined over the past two decades.
For instance, fewer retiring adults are living with a spouse or cohabitating with a partner. Because of declining marriage rates and higher divorce rates, the number fell from about 75% to 69% between 1994 and 2014.
Retiring adults are also less likely to have children who can take care of them. In 1994, 68% of retiring adults lived within ten miles of an adult child. By 2014, the rate had fallen to 55%.
They are less likely to live close to other relatives and friends. The share of retiring adults with a relative in their neighborhood fell from 34% in 1994 to 22% in 2014; and the share with a good friend in their neighborhood fell from 69% to 59% between 1994 and 2012.
Finally, fewer are actively involved in church communities — historically, the single most important repository of social capital in America. The number of these adults who attend religious services at least three times a month fell from 56% to 41% between 1994 and 2014.
In sum, the number and strength of relationships that provide informal care for our elderly are declining, and show every indication of continuing to fall. That means more loneliness and lower quality of life for our older generations, who will likely have to seek costly institutional care outside of the home and away from their loved ones.
All the while, Americans’ birthrates continue to fall. So as our senior population grows and lives longer, there will be fewer friends and relatives to provide care and financial support.
This combination of trends has implications for taxpayers, as it’s likely to squeeze federal and state budgets.
Current projections of spending on Medicare and Medicaid do not take into account social capital as a factor in formulating healthcare costs. As the JEC has also recently found, both the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Congressional Budget Office implicitly assume that the mix of informal and formal care that today’s older Americans receive will stay the same over time. As a result, these projections could well-underestimate federal spending on long-term care.
Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, the classic study of social capital, has recently estimated that the costs of paid care for those “aging alone” might be twice as large as the ones currently projected for 2030.
To top it all off, the 2019 Medicare Trustees report that recently came out projects that the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, one of the main trust funds for Medicare, is now expected to become insolvent in 2026 – three years earlier than estimated in the 2017 report.
This challenge is not going to fix itself anytime soon, and we shouldn’t plan as if it will.
If we do want to ensure that older generations receive the care they need and deserve, policymakers, healthcare providers, and community leaders need to start thinking creatively about how we can build up our social capital and restore the social relationships that can best administer it.
People are always our greatest resource and should be our first priority. It’s social capital, embedded in our relationships, that can provide the best meaning, care, and support in people’s lives, at every stage of life. Our elderly deserve nothing less.
Mike Lee is Utah's senior U.S. senator and Chairman of the Joint Economic Committee.
Op-ed originally published by the Washington Examiner