1900-1930: Number of People Age 65 Plus Living in Institutions

The Institutionalized Age 65+ Population, 1900-1930

Somewhere between 2% and 4% of the population age 65 and older may have been living in some sort of institutional setting prior to the Great Depression. Not all of these people needed “long term care”. In some cases, they just had no other place to go.Only estimates are available because there were no reliable national statistics available.

Bruce Vladeck estimated that by 1930 there were as many elderly people in facilities for the mentally ill as there were in poorhouses and voluntary and charitable facilities combined. If his estimates are accurate, about half of the total elderly population living in an institution in the early 1900’s may have had some sort of mental disease or condition, about the same ratio as we see in nursing homes and assisted living facilities today.

The Institutionalized Age 65+ Population, 1900-1930

The Age 65+ Population 1900 1910 1930
Age 65+ as % of total population 4.1% 4.3% 5.4%
Total population (millions) 76 92 123
Population age 65+ (millions) 3 4 7
Age 65+ living in: 1904 1910 1930
Institutionalized residents as % of 65+ population 2% 2% 3%
Facilities for the mentally ill 20,000 35,000 100,000
Poorhouses & almshouses 53,000 46,000 50,000
Voluntary and proprietary facilities ?? ?? 50,000

Source: Vladeck, 1980; Johnson, 1985

A staff report prepared for the committee that studied old age security in 1935 relied on a few reports done in individual states. One of the more comprehensive surveys was done in New York just prior to the 1929 stock market crash. It determined that 50% or more of the age 65+ population was dependent on relatives or friends (either living with them or getting financial assistance from them to live somewhere else), 2.5% were living in poorhouses or mental hospitals, and 1-2% were living in private homes for the aged. If those percentages were representative of the national experience, that would mean that about 175,000 people age 65 or older were living in poorhouses or mental hospitals and 70,000 were living in nonprofit or proprietary homes. Note that a significant number were self-sufficient because they were still working.

Old Age Dependency in the State of New York
July 1, 1929

Self-Sufficient Persons 65 and over Persons 70 and over
Total Self-Sufficient 44% 36%
  Still working 29% 17%
  Pensions 10% 14%
  Living on personal savings 5% 5%
Dependent Persons 65 and over Persons 70 and over
Total Dependent 56% 64%
  Dependent on relatives or friends 49% 56%
  In community with public or private charity 3% 4%
  In poorhouses or other government institutions 3% 2%
  In nonprofit or proprietary homes 1% 2%

Source: Old Age Security Report

This data comes from several sources. No accurate information really exists on the number of elderly people living in institutions for these early dates. The data on the age 65+ population in mental facilities and poorhouses in 1904 and 1910 comes from Colleen L. Johnson and Leslie A. Grant. Estimates of the institutionalized population for 1930 come from Bruce C. Vladeck. Census data is from the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Current Population Reports, Special Studies, P23-190, 65+ in the United States. (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1996).

The New York survey was taken from Old Age Security Staff Report, Barbara Nachtried Armstrong and Staff, 1934, from unpublished studies by the staff of the Committee on Economic Security (CES), Volume II.

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Since graduating from Harvard with an honors degree in Statistics, Jeff has been creating content in print, online, and on television. Much of his work has been dedicated to informing seniors on how to live better lives. As Editor-in-Chief of the personal… Learn More About Jeff Hoyt