What is the experience of widowhood for older men?
How do they adapt to their new lives?
These were some of the questions the researchers set out to answer to fill a long-standing gap in the research on older widowers.
The study involved interviews with 51 men, aged 58 to 104, scattered throughout 10 states in the United States and in two Canadian provinces. The men came from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. They were mainly middle-class, although many had started out poor. Most were widowed at least two years.
The study’s researchers, Alinde Moore and Dorothy Stratton, are faculty members of Ashland University in Ohio. Moore is chair of the department of psychology, and Stratton is chair of the department of social work. The researchers published their findings in Resilient Widowers (Prometheus Books).
Becoming a Widower
Participants had difficulty sleeping and some lost interest in food following the death of spouses. Others battled depression and feelings of regret. "The experience of widowhood is a highly individualized process of grieving, adjustment, and self-definition," according to researchers.
Adapting to New Life
Men, who cared for ailing wives, appeared to gain in resiliency by having time to deal with their loss and learn household skills. Sudden deaths, on the other hand, were very traumatic, leaving a man at least temporary immobilized. This was especially true for younger men, who felt that in addition to losing their wives, they lost the future.
Following the death of a spouse, some men spent more time alone, others quickly turned to new relationships, while others were too cautious and tearful to make new friends. Still others got involved in community projects.
Adult children provided the most support for fathers. However, contact between the widowed men and children varied widely, from daily to almost never.
Some men found support from siblings. A few from male friends. Others by participating in church activities, social groups, and volunteer work. A few men had very little support.
Most of the men found comfort in their religion. Very few attended bereavement groups. Most felt they had at least some control over their lives.
For example, "Clarence," 93, who lived alone, established a comfortable daily routine. He kept up with current events, spoke very little of health problems, and looked forward to each day and special events, such as his daughter’s visits.
Overall, many of the men adapted quite positively to the loss of spouses, yet in all cases, the researchers noted "an underlying traumatic residue."
And what of the current belief older men remarry quickly and that remarriage resolves their grief? At best, the evidence is mixed.
According to a 1976 study, only one-quarter of widowers over 65 remarry, however, those who remarry do so more quickly than women who remarry. The men tend to marry a widow close to them in age and someone they already know.
In the current study, only 17 of the 51 men remarried – the youngest at age of 54 and the oldest at age 81. Not all married immediately after being widowed, but many did marry within a short period.
Other study participants chose not to remarry, despite feelings of loneliness. This was due mainly to age, health condition, or devotion to deceased wife or independent spirit. As "Daniel" noted, "I am good company for myself."
According to the researchers, first wives are not replaced, but the role of wife is filled by another person.
The study found almost every man had a "current woman" in his life. Sometimes the woman was a new wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, sister or niece. In other cases, the woman is a neighbour, a woman from the man’s church, or a dating companion.
Advice to Other Men:
When asked what advice they would give to other men, who may someday face widowhood, participants offered the following suggestions: