Unmarried Cohabitating Partners: A Growing Caregiver Population

As the population of older adults in need of care continues to rise, more informal care work is provided by family and friends. Evidence has shown that married older adults, particularly men, are likely to receive more informal care than their unmarried peers, with spouses (particularly wives) most likely to act as informal caregivers. Most of this evidence, however, comes from studies that overlook one of the fastest growing forms of family life for older adults: unmarried cohabitation by opposite-sex couples. An analysis of the large-scale Health and Retirement Study compares the likelihood of receiving partner care for married and unmarried older adult cohabitators, making an important contribution to the study of family life and older adults’ well-being.

The study examines the receipt of care by physically frail older adults, comparing unmarried cohabitators to married spouses. The likelihood of receiving care, total hours of partner care, and dependence on partner care (in contrast to having access to other helpers) were all treated as care receipt outcomes. The gender and marital history of care recipients were also incorporated in the analysis, as well as other demographic characteristics such as age and employment. In contrast to married individuals within the study sample, most unmarried cohabitators had been married before and were more likely to be in poor health and have a lower net worth.

The analysis found that unmarried cohabitators with a disability were less likely to receive care from their partner than were similar married individuals. Among those partners who did provide care to a partner with a disability, however, unmarried cohabitators provided as much assistance as did spouses. This might suggest two different models of unmarried cohabitation: a high-involvement, interdependent relationship more akin to current marriage ideals, and a less-demanding, lower-commitment relationship. Future qualitative study may be able to explore this possibility.

In contrast to the repeated findings among married couples that husbands are more likely to receive care and wives are more likely to provide care, there were no significant gender influences in care receipt among unmarried cohabitators. The author suggests that older cohabitators may be “more unconventional than younger cohabitators” and hold different expectations of gender than younger cohabitators and older married individuals. This analysis of the Health and Retirement Study raises important issues for the study of the family lives, gender ideas, and well-being of older adults.



Noël-Miller CM (2011). “Partner Caregiving in Older Cohabitating Couples,” The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 66(3):341-353.

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