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Growth in the Four-Generation Family Documented

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WASHINGTON--The four-generation family will become more and more common as the nation's elderly population continues to increase into the 21st century, a new study by the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

During the 1980's, the study says, the nation's elderly population grew by 22 percent so that, by 1990, about one in eight Americans was elderly--defined as age 65 or older; by 2030, this proportion is expected to increase to one in five.

In particular, the report notes, the population of Americans age 85 and older has increased 232 percent since 1960, compared with a 39 percent increase in the general population, and is expected to be the fastest-growing age group in coming decades.

While people 85 and older make up only slightly more than 1 percent of the total population, the report adds, the increase is expected to have a significant impact on the nation's health and social-service systems.

As a result of the changes, said Tess Scannell, the director of Generations United, families will require more external supports in the form of child care and elder care. Generations United is a coalition of 100 youth- and senior-citizen-serving organizations spearheaded by the Child Welfare League of America, the National Council on Aging, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the Children's Defense Fund.

Although the study suggests that the aging population will lead to increased contact across generations, some questioned that assumption.

"There are so many barriers--geographic and social--to young people and older adults getting together, I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't any increase in natural contact,'' said Marc Freedman, the director of special projects at Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based organization that has conducted research on intergenerational programs.

These relationships, he said, are not "going to just happen naturally; they need to be developed.''

Nonetheless, both Mr. Freedman and Ms. Scannell agreed that the demographic changes offer an opportunity for social-service agencies to bring unrelated young people and older people together through mentoring programs or other projects.

"What's really important about these activities is the relationships that develop,'' Ms. Scannell said, because they "really attack the stereotypes that young people have of older people and that old people have of young people.''--M.S.

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