On Golden Pond: Elderly Couples and Consumer Decision Making

ABSTRACT - A review of studies on husband-wife decision making would tend to suggest that marriages end at about the age of 50. Demographic statistics certainly suggest otherwise. The fastest growing age groups in North America are those over 45, and with increasing longevity, more couples are surviving intact well beyond retirement.


Louise A. Heslop and Judith Marshall (1991) ,"On Golden Pond: Elderly Couples and Consumer Decision Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 681-687.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 681-687


Louise A. Heslop, Carleton University

Judith Marshall, Carleton University


A review of studies on husband-wife decision making would tend to suggest that marriages end at about the age of 50. Demographic statistics certainly suggest otherwise. The fastest growing age groups in North America are those over 45, and with increasing longevity, more couples are surviving intact well beyond retirement.

Two areas of research will be brought together in this paper -- research on the consumer behavior of the elderly and research on husband-wife decision making. The paper will then draw from the literature to develop propositions for research and a framework. The framework recognizes that retirement and aging are separate processes affecting decision making of couples directly and indirectly through effects on resources and needed goals.

"Grow old along with me,

The best is yet to be,..."

Rabbi Ben Izra, Robert Browning


A review of studies on husband-wife decision making would tend to suggest that marriages end at about the age of 50. Demographic statistics certainly suggest otherwise. The fastest growing age groups in North America are those over 45, and with increasing longevity, more couples are surviving intact well beyond retirement. Eighty-three percent (83.4%) of total households composed of people aged 55-64, and 72% of households in the 65-74 year old group are couple households (Statistics Canada 1986). So the consumer behavior literature contains a great gap in information about the decision processes of these consumer dyads. This gap must be filled if marketing managers are to successfully reach the seniors market -- the fastest growing market in terms of both numbers and disposable income (Cymbal 1987; Gelb 1982; Langer 1982).

The purpose of this paper is to propose a model of husband-wife decision making among elderly couples. Background for the model will be presented briefly, followed by a discussion of the model and related propositions.

Model Background (Context)

We are focusing on consumer couples 50 years of age and older recognizing that this is by no means a homogeneous group (Weeks 1986). This age group is the market being cited in the popular business press by business leaders as the fastest growing crucial market for the future. As well, the lower age limit of 50 years was chosen because the movement into the 5th decade of life often marks the beginning of serious planning for retirement and a recognition of the end of youth. (Atchley 1979; Keating, and Marshall 1980)

The model attempts to marry ideas from two very separate and distinct literature - husband-wife consumer decision making and consumer behavior of the elderly. A detailed review of each of these streams of research is beyond the scope of this paper and a complete review is published elsewhere. (A major table summarizing selected research and consumer behavior among the elderly is available from the second author.) However, a few comments will help place our model in context.

First, it is important to note that in the base of general research on consumer behavior, the elderly are under-represented and the focus has been on individual consumers - not couples.

Secondly, although there is a relatively large set of studies. on husband-wife consumer decision-making, virtually nothing is known about the process when elderly couples are involved (one notable exception is a recent study by Elbeck (1989) focusing on vacation decisions).

Within the limited age ranges analyzed in most husband-wife decision-making studies, joint consumer decision making has been found to decline with age and stage of the family life cycle. The reasons usually suggested for this finding are that spouses learn the preference patterns of each other and can take them into account without direct input from the spouse, or that decision specialists emerge over time in a marriage (McGhee 1983), or that time is too limited once children are around to permit as much joint husband-wife decision-making as there was shortly after the marriage (Burns and Hopper 1985). However, there are many reasons why the relationship between joint decision making and age would be curvilinear rather than linear, as will be discussed below.

The literature shows very little overlap between the two research streams. Research on the elderly has not looked at husband-wife consumer decision making. Research on husband-wife consumer decision-making has not looked at the elderly. The proposed framework attempts to address this gap.


Figure 1 presents a model of factors affecting husband-wife decision-making of the elderly. The model combines two major processes - retirement (which is essentially an administrative category), and aging (a natural process). They are separate entities since retirement comes at no necessarily fixed time in the aging process and does not directly affect the rate or the process of aging.

A basic assumption of the model is that most consumption is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Therefore, consumer decision making processes are seen as a consequence of two central controlling factors -- the needs/goals, and the resources of the individuals separately and the couple as a unit. The major resources available to the couple include time, money and capital, physical health and vigor, mental capacities, and stored knowledge from experiences. These resources and needs/goals are both affected by the two process of aging and retirement (Lumpkin 1984; Moschis 1987).



Using the model as a framework for discussion, the effects of both retirement and aging on resources and needs/goals will be discussed below. Then the outcome variables - amount of joint decision-making, and the type of task division and conflict resolution - will be discussed. A summary of the model's interrelationships and several research propositions derived from the model will conclude the paper.


Retirement and Resources

Retirement is most likely to have immediate effects on resources by increasing the time available to couples to pursue goals and spend resources but at the same time reducing the money flows available to pursue the goals. Two problems repeatedly faced by retirees is how to spend the 1/3 of their day that had previously been devoted to paid work and how to do so on the limited money now available (Howard et al 1982). In fact, there is a very wide range of income levels among the elderly. The distribution within this range tends to be bi modal rather than normal (Heslop 1985; Mertz and Stephens 1986; Moschis 1987). There is a large group of elderly households which live on incomes at or below the poverty line. These households usually consist-of widows living alone receiving only any guaranteed government assistance for seniors. The upper income ranges usually consist of couples and either both are receiving the basic government support plus some private or government contribution-based pension, or one of the members of the couple is still in the labor force. They typically own their own home free of a mortgage. So they have considerable discretionary income.

The time available for consumption and consumption-related activities increases after retirement. Many seniors find that shopping becomes a major recreational activity (Howard et al 1982; Keating 1980; Lumpkin 1984; Moschis 1987; Schewe 1985). This increased emphasis on shopping as a recreational activity is likely to increase the amount of joint decision making.

Finally it should be taken into consideration that the relative resource-based power of husbands and wives is likely to shift with retirement. The employed husband with an unemployed wife often controls more resources and has more power in decision making because he brings more monetary resources into the household (Atchley 1979; Blood and Wolfe 1960). However, with retirement his financial contribution usually declines. In addition, the wife may begin to receive, for the first time, her own income from universal pension plans. So the relative financial contribution of each spouse to the household becomes much more equal, reducing any resource-based power discrepancies and increasing the incidence of joint decision making (Atchley 1979; Blood and Wolfe 1960; Smith and Moschis 1985).

Retirement and Needs/Goals

At retirement many employment-related needs are reduced, such as contributions to pension plans, health care plans, union dues, etc. and costs of clothing and transportation. Also, the goals of individuals and the couple may shift from those appropriate to workers -- doing a good job and serving the employer -- to those more concerned with personal self-expression, freedom and service to family and the broader community (Andreasen 1984; Howard et al. 1982; Keating 1980; Keating and Marshall 1980). So the types of products bought will shift to products and services concerned with personal pleasure and experiences, e.g., travel and hobbies. Spending on others in gifts of money, time or in kind may increase (Fareed and Riggs 1982; Heslop 1985). For many, the emphasis will shift away from time-saving products to time-using ones -- gourmet cooking, taking the scenic route while out driving rather than the expressway.

Also, retirement involves such a major change for people that they frequently re-assess priorities and are encouraged by retirement planners to set new goals. These goal shifts may mean significant changes in the types of products and services desired and the allocation of spending.


Aging and Resources

The aging process will also affect the resources and the needs/goals of individuals and couples. There are well-documented impacts of aging on health and body functions (Mertz and Stephens 1986). However, there are tremendous variations in the extent of these effects and the point at which they interfere with normal functioning (Capon et al. 1981). Generally, between the ages of 65 and 75 most people do not suffer from medical conditions that seriously restrict their activity. However, after age 75 such restrictions and a general slowing down are more obvious, although most people still can function quite well into their 80's.

The effects of aging on mental capacities are more controversial. Some decreases in information processing abilities and memory have been noted by some researchers (McGhee 1982 Phillips and Sternthal 1977; Ross 1981; Zeithaml and Fuerst 1983). However, others argue that the results observed are mainly the result of the testing methods applied and/or that speed of processing but not ability to process information is decreased (Roedder-John and Cole 1986; Cole and Houston 1987). Others suggest that training and aids to help seniors sort out important from unimportant information can eliminate any differences seen in decision making and information processing between young and old adults (Roedder-John and Cole 1986).

One very important resource that the elderly have to draw on that has not been dealt with in research to date is their set of experiences or knowledge store. The elderly have a lifetime of experiences as consumers which can assist them in many ways (Moschis 1987; Ross 1981). They have seen producers and retailers come and go. They have experienced the emergence of entire new forms of retailing, of consumer protection measures, of buyer-seller communication. Through the years they have had many opportunities to learn what to expect from retailer services, product warranties, advertising claims, and product performance for many durable and non-durable goods. Most have relatively realistic expectations of what the marketplace can provide. Also, elderly couples share this knowledge store through their joint experiences. Therefore, they can likely draw on it with quick reference to previous situations (e.g., "Remember when we bought that sofa and what happened to the material....").

Of course, some of this experience and knowledge storehouse of the elderly couple contains inappropriate information. New advances in materials and products, high technology processes, and international market developments bring continuing and rapid changes to product origins, compositions and performance levels. The elderly are less likely to have had experience with highly technical and sophisticated electronic products and services such as VCRs, microwave ovens, automated banking machines. So their knowledge store will be much less useful to them in these situations. Moreover, there is evidence that the elderly avoid the use of such products and services, perhaps because they are not prepared to invest the effort to acquire the knowledge necessary to use the new technologies (Gilly and Zeithaml 1985; Marshall and Heslop 1988). So their experience advantage is specific to a large but limited set of products and services, and retailing innovations (Marshall and Heslop 1988).

Aging and Needs/Goals

The effects of aging on needs/goals may be similar to those caused by retirement. The changes in life associated with aging milestones may lead to reassessment of what is important and sought after in life. Aging also may affect relationships with the spouse. Many couples report a new closeness as the busy time of raising children is over and there is more time to devote to each other (Spiro 1983). Personal goals may be submerged, if necessary, to care for a spouse whose health is deteriorating.

Many changes in consumer processes, such as resource allocations and spending patterns, do not occur with retirement, but seem more closely associated with aging. The major shifts actually occur not at age 65, but rather around age 75. This latter age has often been designated the beginning of old-old age or late senescence. After age 75 there are often major shifts in expenditure patterns. There is less spending on food, smoking and alcoholic beverages, travel and transportation, security and taxes, but higher expenditures on gifts and contributions (Heslop 1985).


Amount of Joint Decision Making

Previous research has extensively documented that the extent of joint decision making depends on the products or services being purchased. Durable goods, and products and services central to the goals of the household or with major consequences for family security and well-being will involve much joint decision making. Such products and services include major household appliances, cars, insurance, and vacations. The purchasing of many of these products and services is much more limited among the elderly than among younger couples (Fareed and Riggs 1982; Heslop 1985). In more recent years, the consumption of cars by the elderly, especially couples, has moved closer to that of younger consumers. However, cars owned by the elderly still face much lower replacement rates because of lower average mileage. Vacation services use of the elderly is increasing rapidly, however. Elbeck's (1989) study of elderly couples purchasing vacations indicates high levels of joint decision making and he proposes that this is because the consumption area is one which involves well-being. Elderly couples who are well-off financially also engage in more recreational activities and often do so jointly, increasing the amount of joint decision making.

Task Division

Joint decision making is likely to increase post retirement for non-durable items, such as food, as mentioned earlier. There is more time for shopping by the husband who may "tag along" for something to do (Zbytniewski 1985). So it is likely that retired couples will spend more time than non-retired couples in shopping activities. Once at the store and pushing the cart, husbands usually wish to have some input to the decisions. Since they are no longer making decisions in the work domain, they can find some outlet in family purchasing. If the couple has faced major declines in income with retirement, the food dollar may have to be allocated very carefully. So shopping for food involves significant consumer choices in which both partners become involved.

Joint decision making takes more time. The only major time saving likely to occur when there is more than one decision maker is if the overall job can be broken into tasks which are assigned to individuals in the group. Elbeck (1989) suggests that for vacation services task division is not the norm, rather joint activities are more likely to characterize all stages of the decision process for elderly couples. Since elderly couples tend to have more time available for consumption activities, they may find that joint decision making has many advantages as a user of time and a way to share daily activities generally.

If decision making tasks are divided, what will be the pattern of such a division? Previous research on husband/wife decision making has found that the bases for division are usually related to who has, or is assumed to have expertise, in the area. (Buss and Schaninger 1983; Rosen and Granbois 1983; Spiro 1983). The elderly couples of today grew up and formed gender stereotype attitudes during a more traditional era and are likely to retain these attitudes rather than to make radical shifts with age. Therefore, where task division occurs, it is likely to be along traditional role definition lines.

Another determinant of task division has been relative interest in the product. The spouse who will use the product the most, or who for some reason feels the product is more important to her/him will take over the major tasks, especially the final choice. On this basis, wives were found to have more control and performed more activities related to decisions regarding goods purchased for home and family use. (Davis and Rigaux 1974). In the traditional family structure, this home domain and the social well-being of the family were more central to her role. The husband's role was more external to the family and involved securing the family's economic well-being. So he took primary responsibility for purchasing insurance and investing in the home. Otherwise he exercised his decision making authority outside the home on the job. With retirement that domain for decision making vanishes. The husband may try to transfer his decision making skills and the accompanying desire for control to the household. His areas of interest have been redefined as the work-related interests disappear. As a result, the wife may find that her husband wishes to take control at least partially over decisions she has been making independently for years (Keating 1980). Undoubtedly, some period of transition, adjustment, renegotiation and strife can be expected. So the initial post-retirement period will require more discussions not only to make the decisions but also to decide how the decisions will be made. (Howard, Marshall, Rechnitzer, Cunningham and Donner 1982). This takes time-- which the couple now has. It can result in a new closeness or a new strain in the marital relationship.

The task division will also depend on the mental and physical health of the partners. If one partner faces significant restrictions in mobility or mental capabilities, the other spouse will need to take over most or all of the consumer decisions, even in areas not traditionally theirs. For example, many husbands find that when their wife is ill they suddenly face the unfamiliar supermarket aisles for the first time. Many wives, used to leaving financial matters to their husbands, may be overwhelmed if he can no longer manage the affairs and she must deal with the bank, trust company, lawyers, accountants, insurance agents, etc. As well, since older couples are likely to experience higher incidences of health problems, it is likely that they will spend less time in shopping activities than younger retired couples. To repeat, the elderly of today are more likely to have families with these traditional role divisions, unlike the more egalitarian marriages of more recent years in which more decisions are jointly made. (Qualls 1982). So significant learning and re adjustment will be required if sudden deteriorations in the health of one partner occur.

Type of Conflict Resolution

Spiro (1983) has found that there is less effort to affect the decision of the other spouse in husband-wife decision making by couples who had been married longer. However, her sample did not include elderly couples. Such a shift over time might be expected to continue as the couple reaches senior citizen status. Also, as discussed earlier, the couple may seek more interaction and harmony and may be able to attain it now that the children have left home.

Knowledge of the needs, interest, and desires of the spouse are likely to be greater among elderly couples who have had a lifetime of living together and consuming products and services to gain specific insight to selection criteria. Indeed Elbeck (1989) found that there was significant congruity in answers given by senior husbands and wives separately to questions about consumer decision making control. Research by Davis (1971) on younger couples did not find such agreement. Therefore, it is expected that older couples will make fewer attempts to influence each other in decision making than younger couples.


It is likely that joint husband-wife decision making will be altered with retirement and old age (Lumpkin 1984; Moschis 1987). As the literature reviewed above suggests, shifts are likely to occur in the amount of joint decision making, the way in which decision tasks are divided, and the type of conflict resolution techniques used by husbands and wives. Two key propositions have been developed from the model - these propositions summarize the effects discussed in earlier sections of this paper.

Proposition I Retired couples will:

(i) make more joint consumer decisions than non-retired couples,

(ii) do more joint information seeking than non-retired couples,

(iii) spend more time in shopping activities and enjoy shopping more than nonretired couples,

(iv) do more joint shopping than nonretired couples,

(v) seek consensus rather than "single winner" decisions.

Proposition 2 Elderly couples will:

(i) make more joint consumer decisions than younger couples,

(ii) shift decision making control to the "well" spouse if the health of one spouse deteriorates,

(iii) spend less time in shopping activities than younger retired couples but more time than younger non-retired couples,

(iv) have greater knowledge of the preferences of the spouse for products, and for the relative importance of decision criteria,

(v) make fewer attempts to influence each other in decision making,

(vi) seek more consensus decisions than younger couples.

Proposition one sets out five effects that retirement (an administrative category) is likely to have on husband-wife decision making, while proposition two focuses on the effects of aging (a 'natural' process). Several of the proposed relationships are overlapping because both retirement and aging are likely to affect outcomes. In other cases, the proposed relationships recognize that the main effects are likely to flow mainly from one of the two events (either retirement or aging). Elderly couples with one spouse still in the labor force can be expected to behave differently from elderly couples with neither spouse working. Also, retired couples who are under 65 years of age, 65-75, and 75 and over will generally be found to behave differently. (Atchley 1979; Capon, Kuhn and Gurucharri 1981; Lumpkin 1984. (Both 'aging' and 'wellness' are of course continuous variables which will have to be operationally defined in future research).

The propositions deal specifically with the outcomes of the model rather than the intermediate relationships. These relationships do need further research but in the context of being intermediate rather than outcome variables. The outcome variables are of direct interest to those who study consumer behavior decisions. It is also important to note that the entire model recognizes the overall influences of the broad context variables of socioeconomic status and wealth. Care needs to be taken when devising research projects to measure and/or control for these variables. Large effects of these variables on variables and relationships in the model can be expected and a lack of concern for and control of them will likely muddy research results.

The amount of joint decision making will have to be studied in the context of the type of product being consumed and the time available for the decision. Given earlier research on husband-wife decision making in general and considering the areas of consumption experience most central to the elderly, it can be suggested that certain product categories bear special consideration. Housing is an obvious example because of the large expenditures involved and the centrality of the product to family life and well-being. Often the elderly face major relocation decisions and, therefore, study of these decisions is feasible and would be of utmost importance to marketers and public policy makers in the housing industry.

Leisure and recreation decisions become far more important to the elderly couple and again are important to well-being. Because of the rapidly growing importance of the elderly consumer in this market, marketers in leisure and recreation oriented businesses would benefit especially from research in this product domain. Therefore, they should be an important focus for research.

Food takes such a large share of expenditures for seniors and so much of their shopping time that it is a significant area for study. It also is an area where major adjustments are likely to be made by couples, providing a fruitful field for studying these adjustment processes.


"We all of us in Marketing are now aware that the over - 50 population is the single, largest consumer group in the history of marketing! ... We all know the potential of this market. But what we don't always-know is the 'how-to'. How to approach this market" (Kaye 1989). As this quote from the publisher of one of the recent newsletters that have sprung up to assist managers in approaching the senior market suggests, the senior market has great potential. However, lack of understanding of this market is hindering our effectiveness in reaching it.

The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to the gap in research on husband-wife consumer decision making by elderly couples - a key part of the seniors market. Given the importance of this component of the senior market, the authors have attempted to increase understanding of husband-wife consumer decision making among the elderly by proposing a model (see Figure 1) of factors affecting husband-wife decision making of the elderly was proposed - along with several propositions for future research.

Since the field of study of husband-wife decision making among elderly couples has received virtually no attention, there is much that can be done. The authors will be using the model and the resulting propositions to guide the selection of variables for study and the development of data collection instruments and would hope other researchers will also do so.


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Louise A. Heslop, Carleton University
Judith Marshall, Carleton University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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