WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Support systems for aging Black women are disappearing when they're needed most.
“I was probably one step away from being out here on the street.”
Karen Jennings had hit rock bottom. Four years after the market crash of 2008, her life savings and investments were gone. She’d been forced to sell the house she’d co-owned and lived in with her aunt and mother, who by then had died.
Jennings has always taken pride in holding steady jobs — jobs she has loved — like teaching and working at a parish. But in 2013, the Virginia native declared bankruptcy. As an only child who never married or had children, Jennings — now age 65 — had few relatives to lean on for support. “Friends could only help me … so far,” she says. “What family I had — they tried to help me every way they could, but they couldn’t.”
Jennings is part of a growing number of Black women who are aging alone. By 2060, 1 in 4 Americans will be 65 years or older, according to the Census Bureau. Gaps in the U.S. health care system mean that family members often need to provide medical, emotional and financial support to keep their elders alive. But research published in 2017 by American and Canadian sociologists shows that elder Black U.S. women face a “kin gap” — meaning they are without a partner, children, siblings or parents who still alive — at rates higher than other demographics.
That gap’s also widening faster than for other communities — 2.2 percent of Black women and 1.7 percent of Black men were “kinless” (also called “elder orphans”) in 2015, compared to just over 1 percent of White women and less than 1 percent of White men. These figures are projected to hit over 7 percent for Black women and nearly 6 percent for Black men by 2060. That means 1.6 million Black women — the size of Philadelphia‘s population — will be living without kin by then.
These sweeping demographic shifts have been decades in the making, say experts. Rising rates of “gray divorce” of older couples in long-term marriages, an elevated divorce rate among same-race Black couples compared to White counterparts and lower marriage rates in the Black community are contributors. Family formation patterns among today’s older adults were shaped by mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s, when the prison population quadrupled, disproportionately impacting men of color. Meanwhile, the economic burden of aging alone is compounded by the wealth gap Black women have faced for decades due to systemic racism.
I DON’T WANT TO BE IN AN APARTMENT DEAD FOR DAYS AND NOBODY KNOWS ME.
Growing economic independence over time has empowered women to leave unhappy relationships or avoid them altogether. But less robust kinship networks are also dismantling one of the pillars of support Black women could count upon, says Ashton Verdery, a sociology professor at Penn State who co-authored the research. “We didn’t bake that into our system,” Verdery says. “It’s incredibly expensive to age alone.”
It’s also riskier for one’s health. For those in same-race partnerships, a broadening “kin gap” coincides with a widening life expectancy gap between Black women and men — a disparity already larger than in other communities. Black women today outlive Black men 10 percentage points more than in 2011, on average, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. But living longer can mean spending more time in a “kinless state,” says Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green University.
“Gains in life expectancy don’t mean living more years disease-free,” says Brown, noting that many now spend old age managing chronic diseases like dementia, cancer and heart conditions. Beyond not having kin to help, loneliness in itself is a threat: Stronger social relationships reduce the risk of mortality by 50 percent, research shows.
Black Americans face more lifetime stress than White Americans because of racial inequality, discrimination and segregation — stress that also strains relationships, says Debra Umberson, co-director of the Aging and Longevity Center at the University of Texas, Austin. They’re more likely to prematurely lose close family members, including children, Umberson notes. “Stress, family disruption, grief and loss, and incarceration can create new economic strains and interfere with one’s ability to work.”
Those economic pressures can further tilt a playing field never level to begin with. An analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that single boomer women of color lost 38 percent of their wealth between 2006 and 2012 — four times the percentage loss for White women during those recession years. Boomers, like Jennings, lost that financial net just as they needed to prepare for old age expenses, from accessible home modifications to medical costs not covered by Medicare.
Meanwhile, their social support is shrinking too. Without kin, friendships and community relationships are crucial. For Jennings, now a part-time teacher, a tight-knit group of five female friends — along with school colleagues and her ironclad church community — have been a source of joy. When a friend died three years ago, she was devastated. “She was my rock,” says Jennings, who lost another close friend last September — a scene she stumbled upon herself. “Another friend and myself, we found her,” she recalls.
Physicians must be made aware that older adults could lack people at home to monitor their health, experts say. Another solution could involve facilitating tailored one-on-one care that doesn’t require unpaid family caregivers or exorbitant costs — almost like a wedding planner, says Verdery. But half of older adults living alone had incomes below the “Elder Index” — a measure of the income required by those who are 65 or older to continue living independently — in 2019, according to AARP research.
Verdery points to a model France implemented after a deadly heat wave in 2003 killed thousands — including many seniors — where local governments keep a database of elderly residents and make regular phone call check-ins. “The challenge is to balance a sense of urgency with strategic efforts to put long-term, lasting solutions in place,” says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation. She cites AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect Connected Communities program, which helps residents in senior living communities use voice-activated devices to stay in the loop about community activities.
Of course, some contributors to kinlessness, like gray divorce, aren’t all harmful. Increased female participation in the labor force has enabled older women to exit or avoid unsatisfying marriages more easily. That’s particularly important as life expectancy rises. “If you’re 65 years old and no longer happy in your marriage,” Brown says, two decades could be “a long time to spend with someone you’re not in love with anymore.”
Jennings, for one, dated throughout her adult life but didn’t want to marry after watching what her mother went through when she split up with Jennings’ father, who she says was an alcoholic. “I like to do things my own way, and the older I’ve gotten, the more I enjoy my solitude,” Jennings says. She cherishes the freedom to spend her time how she wants: working with students, playing the piano and using the Master’s degree in theology she earned at age 50 (“I kept a 3.95 average,” she says proudly). She hopes to someday travel to Quebec, though paying off her car is her priority this year.
Still, Jennings lives with lingering worry. She wears a personal safety device and posts often on Facebook to reassure her friends that she is safe. But her apartment complex is quiet, and she doesn’t know her neighbors well.
“That scares me more than anything,” says Jennings. “It frightens me that the older I get, I don’t want to be in an apartment dead for days and nobody knows me.”