Increasing rates of divorce and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among some populations over 50 could raise challenges for pastors ministering to senior adults in the coming years.
In December, England’s chief medical officer Sally Davies reported a 38 percent increase in STIs among Britons ages 50-70, The Telegraph reported. Meanwhile, U.S. researchers at Bowling Green State University say the divorce rate for Americans 50 and older has doubled since 1990 even though the overall divorce rate remained essentially unchanged.
Kenneth Long, pastor of First Baptist Church in Sun City, Ariz. – a retirement community with a minimum age of 55 – told Baptist Press (BP) the “biggest challenge” in his ministry field among both professing Christians and nonbelievers is “senior adults’ living together without being married.”
Senior adult cohabitation seems to occur “because of loneliness and financial needs,” Long said. “One [partner] or the other has retirement [funding] they might lose if they remarried. So they’re choosing to [cohabitate] for financial reasons rather than getting married for spiritual reasons.”
Davies’ 2016 chief medical officer report on public health noted that in the United Kingdom, there were 15,726 new STI diagnoses in 2014 among adults ages 50-70 compared with 11,366 in 2010.
Rising divorce rates lead to older adults’ “re-partnering and potentially having sex with new partners,” Davies’ report stated according to The Telegraph. Some likely engage in unprotected sexual activity because they believe pregnancy is not a risk.
Although “society’s prevailing view still considers that older people are not particularly sexually active,” the report stated, the rise in STIs likely is fueled by “changing social and behavioral patterns” among those who reached adulthood in the 1960s.
Mark Regnerus, a University of Texas sociologist, told BP U.S. rates of some STIs “are increasing among older folks, sometimes quite dramatically.” Still, the raw number of older adults with STIs is relatively small. “And always the baseline rates and frequencies are much lower than [with] younger people.”
A more significant trend among older Americans, Regnerus said, is a “major comparative uptick” in so-called “gray divorce.”
“I think there are a combination of things that created” the rise in divorce among older Americans, Regnerus said in an email. There is “more wealth among this era of senior citizens (or at least people over 50) than in earlier generations, yet with social scripts that: (1) raise expectations for long-term marital satisfaction (2) and have made divorce more accepted socially (and religiously).
“Also,” he added, “corrosive effects of social media [aid] in fostering discontent as well as building social support for decisions people have made to leave.”
A 2013 research paper by Bowling Green State professors Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin noted a “gray divorce revolution” in America. Brown is co-director of the university’s National Center for Family & Marriage Research.
Between 1990 and 2010, the divorce rate for Americans 50-64 increased from 6.9 to 13.1 divorced persons per 1,000 married persons, Brown and Lin wrote. The increase for those 65 and older was 1.8 to 4.8.
In 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 divorced people were over 50, Brown and Lin wrote. Today more than 1 in 4 divorcees are over 50. If the divorce rate holds, more than 828,000 Americans over 50 will be divorced by 2030. In 2010, the number was reported to be about 643,000.
While “the causes underlying the rapid rise in divorce among middle-aged and older adults are difficult if not impossible to establish,” Brown and Lin wrote, the “primary factor” likely is the increasing number of remarriages among older adults, which statistically are more likely to end in divorce.
Brown told BP current data suggests the gray divorce rate is “essentially unchanged” from 2010.
Long, the Arizona pastor, said the solution to older adults’ struggles with marriage and sexuality is the same as the solution for younger adults.
“One man and one woman for life is God’s ideal situation,” Long said. “And that’s what I continue to preach and advise.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)