Widowhood refers both to a marital event, namely, the disruption of marriage due to the death of the spouse, as well as to the subsequent marital status as unmarried and single person. Depending on gender, the individuals concerned are called widow (female) or widower (male).
The loss of an intimate partner is one of the most probable biographical turning points in old age. The death of a spouse impacts in various ways the everyday life, health, well-being, and social relations of the surviving spouse. In order to better understand the short and long-term impact of the loss of a spouse, it has been suggested to distinguish between widowhood and bereavement (Bennett and Soulsby 2012). While widowhood refers primarily to the new social status and its impact, spousal bereavement relates to the status of mourning after the loss of the spouse.
Key Research Findings
Widowhood is not only an age-related but also a gendered experience. Census data from countries around the world reveal that widowed women outnumber their male counterparts by a significant margin. For example, US statistics show that in the age group 75 and over, there are almost three times as many widows (56.9%) as widowers (21.1%) (U.S. Census Bureau 2014). Similar findings apply for Canada (3.9 times as many widows as widowers, Statistics Canada 2017), or for Australia (33% widows and 10% widowers among the 75 years and older, Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017). The same holds for most European countries, e.g., in Germany the proportion of women being widowed at age 65 plus is 38%, whereas that of men is 12% (Statistisches Bundesamt and Statistisches Jahrbuch 2018).
Several factors contribute to this gender gap. The most important is the longer life expectancy in women together with the fact that they are typically younger than their husbands and therefore have a greater probability to outlive them. In addition, widows have a lower probability to remarry (United Nations 2015). As historical documents show, remarriage seems universally to have been more pronounced among men than among women (Blom 1991).
Some circumstances can contribute to an even higher preponderance of widows such as living in low-income countries, particularly in some parts of Asia and Africa, where mortality levels are higher and remarriage after the death of a male spouse is less common than in other regions. But also epidemic diseases, wars, and cultural differences contribute to the higher share of widows. For example, in some sub-Saharan countries, especially in those that experienced political conflicts (e.g., in Burundi, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone), as well as those with high HIV prevalence (e.g., Lesotho, Malawi, and Zimbabwe), the proportion of widows is more than 40% among women aged 60 and over. Furthermore, given the level of polygamy in these regions, when a man passes away he usually leaves two or more widows behind (United Nations 2015).
Independently of these cultural differences, the percentage of older men and women who are widowed generally declined in the last five decades. Main reasons for this is the rise of divorce rates in middle and older age (Brown and Lin 2012) as well as the longer life expectancy for women and men, which entails a greater likelihood that spouses survive together.
Impact of Widowhood and Bereavement
Regardless of historical and cultural backgrounds, the death of a spouse ranks among the most distressing events in human lives with considerable effects on health, well-being, and everyday functioning (Stroebe et al. 2007) (see “Bereavement and Loss”). In the context of late-life development, when physical and social resources decline, losing an intimate relationship, which usually endured for several decades, requires substantial adaptation efforts. There is ample empirical evidence showing that the most common effects of spousal loss are affective and somatic problems. Compared to married peers, widowed individuals are typically characterized by more depressive symptoms and global stress, lower life satisfaction, and fewer positive emotions (Bennett and Soulsby 2012). The death of a spouse also requires a renegotiation of one’s identity and social roles, including significant changes in one’s friendships and social relations in terms of reduced social contacts, networks, and social commitment directly after the loss. It has been shown that a large majority of older widows and widowers identified loneliness as the most difficult aspect to cope with (Utz et al. 2014). The negative consequences may be amplified when experienced in addition with other strains and impairments such as compromised mobility and health declines. But also on a behavioral level, the loss of a spouse can have incisive changes. The survivor must not only adjust to the loss of the partner but also manage the daily decisions and responsibilities that were once shared by both spouses. Finally, becoming widowed has been shown to be associated with a higher probability of mortality (including increased suicide risk) for the surviving spouse compared to married women or men of the same age-group. This so-called widowhood effect was shown to be strongest in the first three months after a spouse died (Sullivan and Fenelon 2014).
In research literature on effects of spousal loss, two main theoretical perspectives can be identified: One perspective focuses on bereavement as a basically personal and universal issue (psychological and/or physical reactions to the loss), which challenges widowed persons independently of their social context or culture (Stroebe et al. 2007). Following this approach, personal factors (i.e., age, gender, health, biographical background, and personality variables such as neuroticism or depression) are primarily relevant for explaining the large individual differences in psychosocial adaptation after the loss of a spouse (Lee 2014). This is especially true for modern Western societies, where widowed women and men do not have a specific social status, and bereavement remains a barely visible individual fate (Perrig-Chiello et al. 2016).
The other perspective focuses on widowhood and defines it primarily as a social issue (social role change with specific effects for a particular cohort), where adaptation processes are largely dependent on societal context and social structures (Bennett 2007). In fact, widowhood does not only disrupt long-standing companionship and social support patterns but also entails financial adjustments and other major lifestyle modifications. Despite improvement of the welfare state, widowhood is still often associated with a substantial decrease of the absolute income-position (Lloyd-Sherlock et al. 2015). Adapting to these changes may lead to poorer health outcomes for the surviving spouse.
Recent results from a large population study comparing two groups of individuals experiencing a spousal loss at different times (in 1979 and in 2011) showed that bereavement is a similar individual psychological challenge independently from the social time frame. With regard to widowhood, the findings mirror the significant improvement of health and social system, financial situation, and of better social infrastructures for elderly. These favorable conditions are important for the better health and social participation of the present generation of widowed but not sufficient for relieving the psychological distress (Perrig-Chiello et al. 2016).
Anyhow most studies concur that both, widowhood and bereavement, are gendered issues, with men and women confronted with specific problems and manifesting distinct symptoms and reactions. Older women in most countries still face financial losses when becoming a widow. In turn, men are generally found to be more psychologically vulnerable than women (e.g., higher rates of emotional loneliness and suicide) (Koren 2016), reflecting men’s high levels of emotional and practical dependence on their wives, coupled with relatively few close emotional ties outside the marriage.
Overcoming Spousal Loss in Old Age: Theoretical Explanations and Empirical Findings
Most of the theoretical work on widowhood has focused on bereavement and the process people adapt to spousal loss. Early contributions were essentially stage theories suggesting that the adaptation process consists of sequential emotional states (such as denial, anger, depression, and acceptance). It has also been assumed that grief work, i.e., working through feelings, thoughts, memories, is a necessary prerequisite to resolve the grief. More recent work, however, has suggested that these approaches might be too static to explain the complex dynamics of grief. One prominent approach is the Dual Process Model of Bereavement (Stroebe and Schut 1999), which assumes two types of coping behavior: loss-oriented coping and restoration-oriented coping. In the former, coping comprises grief work, i.e., recognizing and accepting the loss. In contrast, restoration-oriented coping consists of focusing on new roles, reconstruction of a new identity, and attending to life changes. A central assumption of this model is oscillation, which refers to the process of coping switching between loss and restoration-oriented tasks. Based on this model, subsequent work such as the integrative risk factor framework of bereavement has drawn attention to a broad array of risk factors associated with loss experiences (Stroebe et al. 2006). This model takes into account intra-personal factors (personality characteristics) as well as inter-personal factors (such as social support and culture).
Advances in research suggest that intra- and interpersonal variables should not only be considered as potential risk factors but also as possible resilience factors. Empirical findings confirmed a protective effect of personality traits such as extraversion, conscientiousness, and psychological resilience (Mancini and Bonanno 2009). Extraverted individuals are assumed to have more adaptive coping strategies and to be more successful in support seeking and building new relationships. Conscientiousness in turn is associated with being organized and self-disciplined and may therefore be helpful to manage daily life after loss (Pai and Carr 2010). Psychological resilience finally is assumed to be a factor of higher order, accounting for the functioning of a number of personal and social resources, and could be the key to deal with the challenges of bereavement. Resilient bereaved individuals have been found to show a greater affective complexity, meaning that they are able to experience both positive and negative affects even during periods of stress, when affective space is limited (Bonanno et al. 2011). Recent longitudinal research has shown that even though there are various trajectories of adaptation, the most common pattern is that of recovery and resilience, and only a small minority of individuals remains vulnerable (Spahni et al. 2015).
Interventions for Coping with Widowhood and Bereavement
In the last decades, several measures were taken for improving social security and public health for older people, which also helped to overcome the negative effects of widowhood. In addition, national and communal programs for reducing loneliness were conceived addressing a central concern of widowed individuals (e.g., the national strategy to alleviate loneliness in UK (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-commits-to-government-wide-drive-to-tackle-loneliness) (see “Social Support in Bereavement”). On an individual level, a number of specific interventions to help cope with bereavement have been issued. Here it is important to distinguish between grief counseling and grief therapy (Schut and Stroebe 2010). The former refers to helping a bereaved person through the process of normal grieving by offering supportive environments for reflection, conversation, mutual support, and encouragement (Widow-to-Widow program; Bereavement Cafés) (Silverman 2004; Baldwin 2017). In contrast to these low-threshold offers, grief therapy refers to interventions designed to assist individuals exhibiting complicated or pathological grief. In fact 10–20% of bereaved persons have unremitting reactions to the loss (Newson et al. 2011). In this case, psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Complicated Grief Treatment can be helpful (Mancini et al. 2012). Growing evidence supports internet-based intervention programs for overcoming complicated grief (Simon 2013).
Future Directions of Research
Since social change affects widowhood in a significant way, cohort studies are needed which take into account for the changing generational peculiarities such as gender roles and patterns of marital partnership. Therefore, understanding the ways that macro-social factors shape widowhood may shed light on policy interventions that can help ameliorating the multiple strains associated with late-life spousal loss. As for bereavement, till now research has focused on the negative effects of losing a partner. However, the loss of a spouse may be also associated with positive outcomes (Ong et al. 2010). It can stimulate a person’s individual development, for example, to become more independent, reconstruct identity, and experience personal growth. Finally, since to date intervention studies have shown only modest effects, more research is needed to shed light on determinants of effective intervention to overcome grief.
Widowhood is one of the most probable turning points in the lives of the huge majority of individuals in old age, especially for women. Improvement of health and social system, financial situation, and of better social infrastructures for elderly has created favorable conditions important for better health and social participation. Projections for the future suggest that despite the decline of widows’ poverty, widows will continue to be more vulnerable than married women at least for the next decade (Munnell et al. 2018) (see “Poverty and Gender in Later Life”). In contrast to widowhood, which is associated with specific problems depending on the socio-historical context, bereavement seems to be a similar individual psychological challenge independently from the social time frame. Most older widowed individuals possess a capacity to adapt to the challenges associated with the death of a spouse, and many are resilient. Differences in psychological outcomes depend in first line on the available intrapersonal resources.
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