Why More Seniors Are ‘Living Apart Together’ and What it Means for Health Policy

Daphne Cheung

In a recent Maclean’s article, writer Manisha Krishnan expressed surprise over older couples who are in a committed relationship but do not live in the same residence. This emerging family demographic, known as “living apart together (LAT),” is being recognised in Canada, Britain, and Australia, and in United Nations Economic for Europe (UNECE) reports. With a retiring generation of baby boomers on the precipice of dominating the Canadian population, LAT couples might reflect a greater societal change in family structure that requires innovative policy considerations.

Statistics Canada reported that from 2001 to 2011, the percentage of the Canadian population aged 60 and over in a LAT relationship increased from 1.8% to 2.3%. Although this represents only a slight increase, Statistics Canada also observed that, compared to people aged 20-24, LAT relationships among people aged 60 and above were longer in length and usually made by choice. In addition, older people didn’t intend to move in with their partner and desired to maintain their independence.

LAT relationships represent a break from the expectations that the nuclear family model prescribes for gender roles. In a qualitative study by sociology professors Laura Funk and Karen Kobayashi, individuals in LAT relationship revealed that they valued their freedom from being obliged to cook three meals a day for a partner, for example.

However, legal protection for individuals in LAT relationships remains unexplored. The Legal Services Society of British Columbia provides information and resources on legal procedures for marriages, common-law marriages, separation, and divorce. Apparently, legal protection for the safety of individuals involved in LAT relationships and their families against plausible crimes, such as domestic and elder abuse, as not yet been addressed. Indeed, most participants in Funk and Kobayashi’s study had children from previous relationships, and saw LAT as a way to spare their families from complex legal consequences.

Furthermore, Ian Hull of Hull & Hull Solicitors and Barristers noticed that LAT relationships are currently not recognised in family law, and that issues with succession after one partner becomes deceased may arise. Only a spouse, parent, child, or sibling of the deceased may claim Dependants Relief under the Succession Law Reform Act. The definition of a “spouse” is narrowed only to persons married or previously married to the deceased, persons who have lived with the deceased for over three years, or are the “natural or adoptive parents of a child.”

The average 65 year-old Canadian is expected to live to the age of 85, and the Canadian population is increasing in age. Susan Eng, the Vice President of Advocacy at CARP, a national non-profit that advocates for equitable access to healthcare and eradicating ageism in Canada, notes that increasing occurrences of LAT in the older population highlights current gaps in protection for older persons in the public healthcare system. “The public system is already slow to add more home care resources on the assumption that there is usually a partner/spouse in the house to take over most of the caregiving duties. If that is not true and the growing trend is to live apart, then the need is even more urgent,” she says. Additionally, the chances that there will be an extra eye out in the home for elder abuse prevention and warning signs for dementia could decline for elderly who are LAT, and be a consideration for future healthcare policy.

Eng also argues that older people in a LAT relationship should be celebrated. “People are living longer healthier lives and the boomer generation is likely to keep doing the things they always have, without the shackles of social presumptions that seniors should not be having active sexual or romantic lives,” she says.

We should remember to check our expectations for older members of society and ensure that policies are in place to safeguard fulfilling lives for all Canadians.

Daphne Cheung is a 2015 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance, and holds an Honours Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. She is excited to pursue a variety of policy interests, including social, education, economic, and environmental policy.

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