There wasn't retirement. Old people lives with their children. And economic hard times massacred them.
The New York Times > Week in Review > Life Before Social Security: 'A Great Calamity Has Come Upon Us'
The trauma for the elderly of that era can hardly be overstated. As W. Andrew Achenbaum, a historian at the University of Houston, put it, "The Depression destroyed every mechanism that had existed for covering the vicissitudes of old-age dependency."
Before the creation of Social Security, some Americans had private or state pensions, but most supported themselves into old age by working. The 1930 census, for example, found 58 percent of men over 65 still in the workforce; in contrast, by 2002, the figure was 18 percent.
The elderly also relied heavily on their families. "Children, friends and relatives have borne and still carry the major cost of supporting the aged," the Committee on Economic Security, the Roosevelt administration panel that developed Social Security, reported in 1935. "Several of the state surveys have disclosed that from 30 to 50 percent of the people over 65 years of age were being supported in this way."
The Depression swept this world away. Many of the elderly could no longer find work. Those who had been lucky enough to have a pension or some savings saw them disappear. And many who relied on their children saw them buckle under the strain.
"I am in no position to do the right thing for my mother," one woman wrote to Roosevelt. "I thought as long as I lived there was no need to worry about her being taken care of, but I never dreamed of a depression like we have had."