Health Care Costs Higher for Older, Single Households

Couples have the advantage of relying on each other in the face of medical challenges.

Singles and couples age 65 and older tend to face sharply different expenses for non-recurring health care services such as home health care, nursing home stays, overnight hospital stays and outpatient surgery, according to research by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).

On the other hand, recurring health care expenses—i.e. doctor visits, dentist visits and prescription drugs—averaged about $2,500 per person for both single and couple households aged 65-plus in the two years between 2010 and 2012. The biggest expense was prescription drugs, costing single households an average of $1,766 and couple households an average of $1,609 per person.

“The most important observation from these two figures was that per-person out-of-pocket recurring health care expenses were not any different between single and couple households,” EBRI says. The research organization also says recurring health care expenses generally do not increase with age.

Non-recurring health care expenses, however, cost single households an average of $7,122 but couple households only $3,161 during that two-year period. And those expenses increase with age; for households ages 85 and older, singles spent an average of $13,355 on non-recurring health care expenses, and couples, $8,530. EBRI Research Associate Sudipto Banerjee says the reason these kinds of medical expenses are lower for couples could be because one of the spouses acts as a caregiver.

“Health care expenses are a major concern for retirees,” EBRI concludes. “But some retirees should be more concerned than others. Certainly, those who have existing medical conditions are likely to spend more. But at a more general level, singles are likely to spend more on health care services than couples.”

A recent survey by Nationwide finds that pre-retirees have fears about health care costs in retirement, but are not having the conversations needed to address the issue.

The full EBRI report, “Differences in Out-of-Pocket Health Care Expenses of Older Single and Couple Households,” can be downloaded here.