The elevated levels of protection, assistance, and care enjoyed by the elderly living in complex households has long been a key assumption of many family system theories. However, although this hypothesis has been demonstrated for contemporary contexts, quantitative evidence for past populations is particularly scarce, if not nonexistent. This article investigates the relationship between old-age mortality and living arrangements in a mid–nineteenth century Tuscan population, where the joint family system of sharecroppers coexisted alongside the nuclear system of day laborers. Our findings demonstrate that within complex households, the complexity of relationships, gender inequalities, and possible competition for care and resources among the most vulnerable household members—namely, the elderly and the young—weakens the assumption that the elderly benefitted from lower rates of old-age mortality.
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