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Widowhood - The Consequences Of Widowhood

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Many of the critical issues surrounding widowhood have to do with its consequences, particularly in regard to health and mortality, psychological well-being, and social relations.

Most studies find that widowhood elevates the risk of mortality. Widowed persons also report more physical health problems than do comparable married persons. Prigerson and colleagues (2000) found that the number of chronic conditions, nursing-home days, physician visits, and health care costs increased more among widowed persons than among married persons.

Not surprisingly, widowed persons have been found to score lower on measures of psychological well-being—and higher on measures of depression, loneliness, and anxiety—than married persons. However, many of these studies have found the adverse effects of widowhood on psychological well-being to be relatively small. This contradicts the common assumption that widowhood tends to be quite devastating psychologically.

Widowhood appears to be a crisis to which most people eventually adjust, and the negative effects on psychological well-being generally diminish with time. Some studies (e.g., Mendes de Leon et al., 1994) report that levels of depression, for example, return to prewidowhood levels in as little as a year after bereavement. But other studies (e.g., Lee et al., 1998; Wortman and Silver, 1990), primarily cross-sectional studies (that is, those that compare widowed people with married people at a single point in time), find widowed persons to be more depressed than married persons many years after widowhood.

Some of this discrepancy between studies may be due to the nature and timing of their comparisons. Lichtenstein and associates (1996) studied a sample of twins from Sweden. In each pair of twins, one had been widowed and the other was still married. The sample was followed over a nine-year period. Individuals who were widowed during the course of the study showed elevated levels of depression prior to widowhood, perhaps in response to their spouses’ illness and the disruption in their lives caused by the illness. So a return to the pre-widowhood level of depression meant that widowed persons were still more depressed than their married twins. Although depression scores improved with time among the widowed, the researchers found that even those who had been widowed for extended periods of time (prior to the inception of the study) were more depressed (and more lonely and less satisfied with their lives) than their married twins on average.

The consensus that seems to be emerging is that, while widowhood is quite devastating psychologically in the short run for most people, over time most people adjust reasonably well. In some cases widowhood offers relief from caring for an ill or disabled spouse and allows the widower or widow to reorganize his or her life around other activities.

There has been considerable controversy as to whether widowhood is a more difficult experience psychologically for men or for women. Widowhood is generally a greater problem financially for women than men, and economic difficulties can lead to lower psychological well-being. Several studies (e.g., Schuster and Butler, 1989; Thompson, et al., 1989) have indeed found that widowhood has a greater adverse impact on the psychological well-being of women. Other studies, however (e.g., Lee, et al., 1998, 2001; Umberson et al., 1992) have reported stronger effects on men. The weight of the evidence at this point seems to favor the argument that widowhood is more difficult for men.

In cross-sectional studies such as those noted above, some of the apparent advantage in psychological well-being that widowed women have over widowed men is illusory. Men are more likely to remarry than women, which probably removes the least depressed men from the population of widowed persons, thereby decreasing the average of those remaining. In addition, because of their higher mortality rate (as well as their higher remarriage rates) widowed men are generally widowed for shorter periods of time than women, giving them less time to adjust.

On the other hand, widowhood has a stronger negative effect on the health of men than that of women, and poor health impacts psychological well-being. In addition, there is some evidence (e.g., Lee et al., 2001; Umberson et al., 1992) that widowed men find housework to be more daunting. Their dislike of housework, combined with the necessity of doing it, is associated with greater depression.

But widowhood is also more depressing for men because married men are the least depressed of any sex/marital status group. Some studies (e.g., Lee et al., 1998, 2001) indicate that men are more advantaged by marriage than women in terms of psychological well-being, making marriage a greater barrier against depression for men than for women. The end of a marriage, therefore, has greater negative psychological consequences for men than for women. Lee et al. (2001) found that widowed men were no more depressed than widowed women, but, because married men were less depressed than married women, the difference between married and widowed men was larger than the difference between married and widowed women.

Somewhat paradoxically, men may be disadvantaged in the process of adjusting to widowhood because it is relatively uncommon among them. As noted above, most widowed persons are women because wives are much more likely to outlive their husbands than to predecease them. The larger number of widowed women than widowed men allows men a greater opportunity for remarriage, and they take advantage of this to some extent. However, this also means that they have fewer opportunities to form friendships with men in similar positions, and there are fewer male role models for successful adaptation to widowhood. It is also likely that few men expect to outlive their wives and when they do they have not prepared for it psychologically or socially.

Many studies (e.g., Bradsher, 1997) show that a strong and active support network of family and friends is important in helping widowed persons adjust to their situation. It is frequently the case that widowed parents move in with children, particularly if their own health is failing. Among persons in their seventies and above, widowed people are much more likely than married couples to live with children, although most widowed persons do live alone. Roan and Raley (1996) showed, based on a longitudinal study that followed people for five years, that adults whose mothers were widowed increased their frequency of visits, telephone calls, and letters to their mothers. However, it is possible that increased contacts by children with widowed parents occur primarily in the first few years after widowhood; comparisons of the long-term widowed with married people show few differences in this area.

Another very important issue for widowed persons is the question of who provides care when they become ill or infirm. The evidence is clear that children are the primary source of care for older persons without spouses. Daughters are much more likely to provide care to widowed parents than are sons, but this is largely due to the fact that most widowed parents in need of care are mothers. Widowed mothers are cared for overwhelmingly by daughters while widowed fathers who require care receive it about equally from sons and daughters. Those without children may receive care from friends, neighbors, or relatives, but are also more likely to be institutionalized.

Widowhood is, and has been, a statistically normal part of the life cycle, particularly for women. It is not a happy event, and there are many adverse consequences in terms of both physical and psychological health, including an elevated risk of mortality (especially for men). However, most widows and widowers appear to adjust successfully in the long run.

GARY R. LEE

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BRADSHER, J. E. ‘‘Older Women and Widowhood.’’ In Handbook on Women and Aging. Edited by Jean M. Coyle. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Pages 418–429.

LEE, G. R.; DEMARIS, A.; BAVIN, S.; and SULLIVAN, R. ‘‘Gender Differences in the Depressive Effect of Widowhood in Later Life.’’ Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 56B (2001): 556–561.

LEE, G. R., and DWYER, J. W. ‘‘Aging Parent-Adult Child Coresidence: Further Evidence on the Role of Parental Characteristics.’’ Journal of Family Issues 17 (1996): 46–59.

LEE, G. R.; DWYER, J. W.; and COWARD, R. T. ‘‘Gender Differences in Parent Care: Demographic Factors and Same-Gender Preferences.’’ Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 48 (1993): S9–S16.

LEE, G. R.; WILLETTS, M.; and SECCOMBE, K. ‘‘Widowhood and Depression: Gender Differences.’’ Research on Aging 20 (1998): 611–629.

LICHTENSTEIN, P.; GATZ, M.; PEDERSEN, N. L.; BERG, S.; and MCLEARN, G. E. ‘‘A Co-twin Control Study of Response to Widowhood.’’ Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences 51B (1996): P279–P289.

LIEBERMAN, M. Doors Close, Doors Open: Widows, Grieving and Growing. New York: Grosset/ Putnam, 1996.

LOPATA, H. Z. Current Widowhood: Myths and Realities. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996.

MASTEKAASA, A. ‘‘The Subjective Well-Being of the Previously Married: The Importance of Unmarried Cohabitation and Time Since Widowhood or Divorce.’’ Social Forces 73 (1994): 665–692.

MENDES D. L., CARLOS F.; KASL, S. V.; and JACOBS, S. ‘‘A Prospective Study of Widowhood and Changes in Symptoms of Depression in a Community Sample of the Elderly.’’ Psychological Medicine 24 (1994): 613–624.

PETERS, A., and LIEFBROER, A. C. ‘‘Beyond Marital Status: Partner History and Well-Being in Old Age.’’ Journal of Marriage and the Family 59 (1997): 687–699.

PRIGERSON, H. G.; MACIEJEWSKI, P. K.; and ROSENHECK, R. A. ‘‘Preliminary Explorations of the Harmful Interactive Effects of Widowhood and Marital Harmony on Health, Health Service Use, and Health Care Costs.’’ The Gerontologist 40 (2000): 349–357.

ROAN, C. L, and RALEY, R. K. ‘‘Intergenerational Coresidence and Contact: A Longitudinal Analysis of Adult Children’s Response to Their Mother’s Widowhood.’’ Journal of Marriage and the Family 58 (1996): 708–717.

SCHAEFER, C.; QUESENBERRY, C. P. J.; and WI, S. ‘‘Mortality Following Conjugal Bereavement and the Effects of a Shared Environment.’’ American Journal of Epidemiology 141 (1995): 1142–1152.

SCHUSTER, T. L., and BUTLER, E. W. ‘‘Bereavement, Social Networks, Social Support, and Mental Health.’’ In Older Bereaved Spouses: Research with Practical Applications. Edited by Dale A. Lund. New York: Hemisphere, 1989. Pages 55–68.

THOMPSON, L. W.; GALLAGHER, D.; COVER, H.; GALEWSKI, M.; and PETERSON, J. ‘‘Effects of Bereavement on Symptoms of Psychopathology in Older Men and Women.’’ Older Bereaved Spouses: Research with Practical Applications. Edited by Dale A. Lund. New York: Hemisphere, 1989. Pages 17–24.

UMBERSON, D.; WORTMAN, C. B.; and KESSLER, R. C. ‘‘Widowhood and Depression: Explaining Long-Term Gender Differences in Vulnerability.’’ Journal of Health and Social Behavior 33 (1992): 10–24.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. ‘‘65+ in the United States.’’ Current Population Reports, Special Studies. Series P23, no. 190. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996.

WORTMAN, C. B., and SILVER, R. C. ‘‘Successful Mastery of Bereavement and Widowhood: A Life-course Perspective.’’ In Successful Aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences. Edited by Paul B. Baltes and Margaret M. Baltes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Pages 225–264.

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