Emerging trends in living arrangements and conjugal unions for current and future seniors

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by Anne Milan, Irene Wong, Mireille Vézina

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Overview of the study

In the context of an aging population and increasingly diverse living arrangements for all age groups, this study uses data from the censuses of population and from the 2011 General Social Survey to examine the conjugal histories and living arrangements of current seniors (individuals aged 65 and over) and 'future seniors' (individuals aged 55 to 64).

  • In 2011, 92% of seniors aged 65 and over lived in private households and 8% lived in collective dwellings. The proportion of individuals aged 85 and over living in collective dwellings declined from 1981 to 2011, from 41% to 35% among women and from 29% to 23% among men.
  • An increasing proportion of seniors living in private households were in a couple. In 2011, 76% of senior men were part of a couple, up slightly from 75% in 1981. Among senior women, the proportion in a couple was 49% in 2011, up from 40% in 1981.
  • Older Canadian couples are closer in age to each other than they were three decades ago. Of the 1.7 million senior couples in 2011, 49% had an age difference of three years or less, compared with 40% in 1981.
  • From 1981 to 2011, the proportion of those who were divorced or separated rose from 4% to 12% among seniors aged at least 65. In 2011, the proportion of future seniors aged 55 to 64 who were divorced or separated hovered around 20%, compared with 6% in 1981.
  • Most seniors stayed with the same spouse or partner during their couple years, but a larger portion experienced multiple unions in younger age groups. In 2011, 26% of men and 19% of women aged 65 to 74 experienced more than one union during their lives. Among those aged 55 to 64, the proportions were about three in ten for both men and women.

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Canada, like many industrialized countries, has an aging population, and the share of senior men and women aged 65 years and over is expected to rise in the coming decades. Population aging can be attributed to the low fertility rate of recent decades, increasing life expectancy and the movement through the age structure of the large cohort of baby boomers born from 1946 to 1965. In 2011, there were close to 5 million seniors, accounting for 15% of the total population. This compared to 2.4 million seniors in 1981, or 10% of the population. By 2031, there may be 9.6 million seniors in Canada, representing 23% of the total population.Note1

The number of seniors is growing in a context of increasing diversity in family circumstances for the total population. Living arrangements and conjugal life are influenced by societal, demographic and legislative changes that affect all age groups to various degrees, which could have a greater impact on future generations of seniors. The family characteristics and living arrangements of both existing and future seniors—whether they are married spouses or common-law partners, or live alone or in a collective—will have implications for the care they receive from family and friends,Note2 their housing needs and their social and economic well-being.Note3 For example, roles and expectations regarding former family members may be uncertain following union dissolution. In contrast, seniors who have experienced one union, or none at all, may have fewer adult children, if any, as part of their social or care networks.

This study examines the living arrangements and conjugal lives of senior men and women in Canada. It also offers an indication of emerging trends for the future generation of seniors—aged 55 to 64 in 2011—who have experienced even more varied family and conjugal histories than today’s seniors. Specific topics that will be examined include an overview of living arrangements of today’s seniors, the share in couples by age and sex, as well as selected characteristics such as the proportion of couples that are closer in age, opposite-sex or same-sex spouses or partners, and shares of current and future seniors who have had more than one union. For current and future seniors who had been legally married and experienced a marital termination, the extent to which it was the result of divorce or separation rather than the death of a spouse will be explored, as well as the proportion of the population that was divorced or separated.

Data are primarily from the 2011 Census of Population—with some historical comparisons—as well as the 2011 General Social Survey (GSS) (see Data sources, methods and definitions). Census data are used to examine the share of the senior population that is part of a couple, lives alone or with others, is part of an age-homogamous couple, and in a common-law union. The GSS data provide a retrospective view of the conjugal unions of seniors, including (1) whether a first marriage termination was the result of divorce, separation or the death of a spouse, and (2) participation in a subsequent union. Throughout this article, comparisons are made between the senior population and future seniors, as well as with younger age groups, where appropriate.

Smaller share of seniors in collective dwellings compared with 30 years ago

Most seniors live in private households, but some live in collective dwellings—primarily health care and related facilities—such as nursing homes.Note4 In 2011, 92% of seniors aged 65 and over lived in private households or dwellings, as part of a couple, alone or with others; 8% lived in collective dwellings.Note5 Owing to their greater longevity, a higher proportion of women (10%) than men (5%) spent at least some of their senior years in a collective environment. In 1981, these proportions were 10% and 7%, respectively. Of the more than 393,000 seniors who lived in some form of collective dwelling in 2011, about 7 in 10 were women, similar to 1981.

Most of the younger seniors lived in a couple, as either a married spouse or a common-law partner. Smaller numbers lived alone, with others, or in a collective dwelling (Chart 1). Compared with younger seniors, fewer older seniors lived in private households, specifically in a couple, and comparatively more lived in collective dwellings, especially women. However, the proportion in private households overall did not fall below 50% of the female population until age 94, and the share in private households remained at least 50% of the male population until age 99.

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In addition, the proportion of seniors living in a collective dwelling declined in each age group during the 30 years from 1981 to 2011, particularly among those aged 80 or over (Chart 2). Among those aged at least 85, the proportion in collective dwellings in 2011 declined from 29% to 23% for men and from 41% to 35% for women. These changes, however, took place as the senior population grew rapidly, and it will grow even more rapidly over the coming decades.

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Most seniors living in private households were in a couple

Among seniors living in private households, the majority were in some type of a family context, primarily as part of a couple. More than three-quarters (76%) of senior men and close to one-half (49%) of senior women lived as married spouses or common-law partners, according to the 2011 Census, a slight rise for men and a greater rise for women from 1981, when 75% of senior men and 40% of senior women lived as part of a couple (Chart 3).

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The increased share of seniors who live in a couple may be related to higher life expectancy. Although women still live longer than men, life expectancy has been increasing more rapidly for men during the past three decades. This potentially allows relationships to endure further into the senior years and explains, in part, why senior women are now more likely to live in a couple. The share of women in a couple was larger in 2011 than in 1981 at age 60 and over (Chart 4).Note6 The largest increase took place among those aged 75 to 79: 46% of women in this age group were in a couple in 2011, compared with 30% in 1981. Men’s share was larger in 2011 than in 1981, beginning at age 70. The change was greatest at age 85 and over: 60% of men in that age group were in a couple in 2011, up from 48% in 1981. The higher proportion of men in their early fifties to early seventies who were in a couple, compared with younger ages in 2011, could reflect a trend among men to enter a new relationship following an earlier union dissolution.

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Of the 2.8 million people aged 65 and over in a couple in 2011, the large majority were opposite-sex married spouses or common-law partners. About 0.3%, or close to 8,000 seniors in a couple in 2011, were in same-sex relationships. However, among future seniors aged 55 to 64, more than 19,700 people (representing 0.6% of the population in this age group) were in same-sex couples in 2011. Younger age groups reported larger shares of people in same-sex couples—for example, 1.1% of people aged 45 to 49 in 2011—another form of family diversity that could increase for future generations of seniors if these individuals remain in a couple or form a new couple as they grow older.

Trends in life-expectancy also affected the proportion of seniors living alone. In 2011, the proportion of women aged 65 and over in private households who lived alone was 35%, down slightly from 36% in 1981. Among senior men, it was the reverse: the share of those who lived alone increased from 14% to 17% over the same time period. At the oldest ages—85 and over—when needs and issues related to care, financial security and housing are typically more acute, 56% of women and 28% of men who were in private households lived alone in 2011.Note7

The remaining seniors in private households lived in other arrangements—with relatives, as lone parents or only with non-relatives. The share of senior women in other living arrangements decreased from 23% in 1981 to 16% in 2011; the share of senior men declined from 11% to 7%. Living arrangements involving relatives or multiple generations sharing a home could mean that exchanges of emotional, financial and/or functional support flow both to and from the senior generation.Note8 Specifically, 5% of the population aged 65 and over lived with relatives in 2011—7% of women and 3% of men.Note9 An additional 7% of senior women and 2% of senior men lived as lone parents in 2011—that is, with adult children who had no children, or spouse or partner of their own in the same home. Finally, a small share of both senior women and senior men (about 2%) lived only with non-relatives such as a roommate.

More senior couples are age homogamous than three decades ago

Age differences between spouses or partners can also be a factor in the living arrangements of seniors. Age-homogamous couples are defined as having an age difference between spouses or partners of three years or less; age-discrepant couples differ in age by more than three years. Age-discrepant couples, particularly in the senior years, may be more affected than age-homogamous couples by the timing of the labour-force-to-retirement transition or by differences in health status. Both these differences may, in turn, have financial and caregiving implications. Conversely, greater proximity in age could also mean that couples are potentially less likely to experience widowhood until later in their senior years.

Overall, senior couples—composed of at least one person aged 65 or over—were increasingly close in age. Of the 1.7 million senior couples in 2011, 49% were age-homogamous, up from 40% in 1981 (Chart 5). In comparison, when spouses or partners in a couple were both aged 65 or under, a higher proportion (62%) was age-homogamous, largely unchanged from 61% in 1981. Among age-homogamous senior couples in 2011, 85% were composed of both spouses and partners aged 65 and over.

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Among age-discrepant couples, men were much more likely than women to be the older spouse or partner.Note10 In 2011, in 23% of senior couples, the man was at least seven years older than his spouse or partner. In 3% of senior couples, the woman was older by seven or more years.Note11 For an additional 22% in 2011, the man was four to six years older, and 3% of couples were comprised of a woman four to six years older.

The share of seniors who are divorced or separated increased

Most seniors and future seniors have experienced just one union in their lifetime. According to the 2011 GSS, 77% of the population aged 65 and over had been in just one union—either a marriage or common-law relationship. Among the future-senior population aged 55 to 64, about two-thirds (67%) had been part of only one union during their lifetime. In both cases, marriage was by far the most common form of union: 99% among those aged 65 and over, and 94% among those 55 to 64.

One way to express the longevity of unions is to examine the proportion of seniors who reached their golden anniversary—50 years of marriage. In 2011, 21% of women and 10% of men aged 65 to 74 had reached this milestone, either with a current or past marriage. Not surprisingly, a much larger share of seniors aged 75 and over—74%—reached this milestone, with little difference between men and women. This pattern could change for subsequent generations given that, on the one hand, higher women’s and men’s longevity would increase the likelihood of reaching this anniversary, while on the other hand, higher rates of union dissolution among younger cohorts may prevent some couples from remaining together that long.

Union dissolution is, however, a reality seniors must face at some point—because of death of a spouse, divorce or separation. The transition to unmarried status at older ages, or ʹuncouplingʹ, can have an impact on emotional and/or financial well-being during the senior years, especially in the absence of adequate resources or coping strategies.Note12 Among senior women who had been married at least once and whose first marriage had ended, 65% made the transition to uncoupling due to the death of their spouse. Among older men, divorce and separation were the most common sources of uncoupling among older men, at 61%.

While some seniors divorced at younger ages and retained this marital status as they aged, others will have done so later: which has recently been referred to as ʹgrey divorceʹ.Note13 As a result of rising divorce rates, which followed the passage of divorce legislation in 1968 and 1986, the proportion of divorced or separated seniors has increased significantly during recent decades (Chart 6).Note14 In 2011, 12% of the population aged 65 and over was divorced or separated—three times the proportion in 1981. Growing numbers of future seniors aged 55 to 64 reported a legal marital status of divorced or separated over this 30-year period, particularly those aged 55 to 59 (from 6% in 1981 to 20% in 2011). Even among the population aged 85 and over, 4% were divorced or separated in 2011 compared with 1% in 1981.

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Marriage termination from divorce or separation generally occurs earlier in life than the death of a spouse. According to the 2011 GSS, the average age of the population aged 55 and over who  experienced the termination of their first marriage as a result of the death of their spouse was 61.5 years, with little difference in average age between men and women. In contrast, among those 55 and over whose first marriage ended in divorce, this occurred at an average of 39.0 years of age—40.3 years for men and 37.8 for women. Therefore, a subsequent union is more likely to occur sooner after the breakup of a first marriage than after the death of a spouse. Multiple unions and remarriage will be discussed in the next section.

Not all union dissolutions are the result of divorce or separation from a legal marriage—common-law unions may also terminate. When both types of unions are considered, 18% of the senior population had experienced the end of one union—either a marriage or common-law union—and 4% had experienced two or more dissolutions. Of the remaining seniors, 74% were currently in their first union, and 3% had never been in a union. A higher proportion of future seniors aged 55 to 64 had experienced the dissolution of one union (25%), and an additional 11% had had two or more terminated unions. Compared with current seniors, fewer of those 55 to 64 were still in their first union (60%), and the proportion that had never been in a union was similar (4%).

Multiple unions a growing reality among future seniors

Do seniors engage in a new relationship after a divorce or the death of their spouse? According to the GSS, a sizable minority of seniors certainly do so: among those aged at least 65 in 2011, 14% had been married more than once.Note15 The average length of time from the end of a first marriage to the start of a second marriage was 7.2 years, with little difference when the reason for first marriage termination was considered.

When common-law relationships are also considered, 19% of those 65 and over have been part of more than one union over the course of their lives, either as married spouses or common-law partners. Younger seniors—people aged 65 to 74—were even more likely to have been in more than one union, especially men (Chart 7).Note16 In 2011, 26% of men and 19% of women aged 65 to 74 had been married or lived in more than one relationship. Although the proportions were lower overall for seniors aged 75 and over, a slight gap remained between men (18%) and women (13%).Future seniors aged 55 to 64 were relatively more likely to have had two or more unions during their lifetime—about 3 in 10 people, with no significant difference between men and women.

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When the reasons for the first dissolution are examined, divorced or separated men were particularly more likely to have had a second union (Chart 8). More than three-quarters (76%) of senior men experienced a second union following a divorce or separation, as did 55% of senior women. A smaller share of the population had a second union if their first marriage ended in death (31% of men and 13% of women). However, such numbers reflect the fact that death tends to happen later in life, leaving less time to enter a new relationship.

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The numbers above indicate that many seniors still want to be part of a couple. But when they do so, are they more or less inclined to (re)marry?

When seniors experienced a second union, it was usually—but not always—a marriage. According to the 2011 GSS, among seniors who had a second union, 73% chose marriage and 27% chose a common-law union, with little difference between men and women.

Even if marriage remains the preferred option of seniors who engage in another union, the share of those living common-law has been increasing for older age groups. For example, among 65- to 74-year-olds, the number of common-law partners grew by 61% from 2006 to 2011, compared with a 15% growth in the population of married spouses in this age group.Note17

As a result, even if seniors living in common-law unions are still relatively rare, their numbers are bound to increase in the coming years. In 2011, 94% of seniors in couples were married spouses and 6% were common-law partners. Among future seniors aged 55 to 64, 12% of the population in couples were common-law partners. In addition, living in a common-law union is even more prevalent among young adults, particularly those in their late twenties.Note18


Most seniors live in a family context with many living in a couple—a particularly larger proportion of women compared with several decades ago. Being in an age-homogamous couple—combined with increased life expectancy—potentially allows for relationships to exist well into the senior years, which, in turn, could have implications for the provision of care and support from family and friends, and affect decisions such as labour force to retirement transitions. The majority of seniors in a couple are married spouses: the number of common-law partners is low but has been growing most rapidly for older age groups, many of whom had been previously married. The share of seniors in same-sex couples, while small, is larger for the future generation of seniors, currently in their late fifties and early sixties.

Most seniors and future seniors have been part of only one union (past or present): a marriage. However, a rising proportion of men and women aged 50 and over were divorced or separated, and a relatively larger share of younger seniors and future seniors compared to older seniors have had multiple unions. Senior women were more likely to have had their first marriage end by the death of their spouse; divorce or separation was the more common path to first marriage termination for senior men. Union dissolution due to divorce generally occurs earlier in life compared with the death of a spouse. This may allow for additional subsequent unions.

As a variety of living arrangements become increasingly accepted by seniors, and as younger generations grow older, even more diversity can be expected when these cohorts reach their senior years. The greater variation in living arrangements and past experiences is already evident among individuals aged 55 to 64. More complex family histories and living arrangements may produce a larger number of extended family members, such as current and former stepchildren or stepgrandchildren, as well as in-laws and their kin. As a result, the family-related experiences and conjugal histories of tomorrow’s seniors could look increasingly different from those of today’s seniors.

Anne Milan is a senior analyst at the Demography Division, Irene Wong is an analyst at the Microdata Access Division, and Mireille Vézina is an analyst at the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada.


  1. Based on a medium-growth scenario. See Statistics Canada. 2010. Population Projections for Canada, Provinces and Territories, 2009 to 2036. Catalogue no. 91-520-X.
  2. See Turcotte (2013a) and Sinha (2013).
  3. See Milan and Vézina (2011).
  4. Includes all individuals in private or collective dwellings in Canada. Persons outside Canada on government, military or diplomatic postings are excluded. Persons in private occupied dwellings refers to a person or a group of persons who occupy the same dwelling and do not have a usual place of residence elsewhere in Canada. The population in private occupied dwellings is the same as the population in private households. Persons in collective dwellings refers to the population in dwellings of a commercial, institutional or communal nature, such as nursing homes and hospitals. For more information on private and collective dwellings, see the 2011 Census Dictionary (Statistics Canada 2012).
  5. See Milan et al. (2012).
  6. See Milan (2013).
  7. The population 85 years of age and over is also among the most rapidly growing age groups. See Martel and Ménard (2012).
  8. Of the population aged 65 and over, 6.9% overall—7.9% of women and 5.8% of men—were grandparents in shared homes with at least one grandchild, regardless of the presence of the parental generation. Of these 314,400 grandparents, 87.1% lived in a multigenerational home; the remaining 12.9% lived in a skip-generation home.
  9. As an example of the diversity within the senior population, the 2011 National Household Survey shows that the share of senior immigrants who lived with relatives (8.7%) was more than double that of other seniors (3.5%). Among only senior immigrants who had arrived during the 2006-to-2011 period, the proportion was 27.4%. Among the population aged 15 to 64, the share of immigrants who lived with relatives (2.7%) was also higher than that of non-immigrants in this age group (1.7%), increasing to 4.4% for immigrants in this age group who arrived during the 2006-to-2011 period.
  10. A small number of same-sex couples are included in this analysis, in which case one woman or man in the relationship is identified as the older spouse or partner.
  11. Among all couples in which both members were younger than 65, 31.9% were composed of an older male spouse or partner in 2011. Among couples composed of at least one spouse or partner 65 and over, 45.5% involved an older male spouse or partner. Difference by age group was narrower for those with an older female spouse or partner: 6.4% among couples in which both members were under age 65, and 5.8% among those composed of at least one spouse or partner aged 65 and over.
  12. See Wu and Schimmele (2007).
  13. See Brown and Lin (2012).
  14. See Milan (2013
  15. There was no statistically significant difference between seniors and future seniors in the proportion that had two or more marriages.
  16. See Ménard and Le Bourdais (2012) for more information on conjugal trajectories.
  17. Beyond conventional co-residential relationships, some older adults may have a living apart together (LAT) relationship, in which they consider themselves part of a couple but do not share the same dwelling. Recent research based on GSS data found that about 2% of people aged 60 and over were in a LAT couple in 2011. For more information on senior LAT couples, see Turcotte (2013b).
  18. In Quebec, common-law relationships are already a growing part of the conjugal lives of seniors: 11% of current and 23% of future seniors in a couple in 2011 were common-law partners (see Larger share of common-law partners in Quebec).

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