A new Czech study sheds light on how older widows cope with the death of a spouse, and forge new lives.
The study is based on biographical interviews with 20 women, aged 62 to 80, living in the Czech Republic. It appeared online in the Journal of Women & Aging on Jan. 11, 2016.
The women in the study were not interested in remarriage. They learned to enjoy living alone. The women cultivated friendship as a way to share experiences and ward of loneliness.
AHB reached the study author, Dr. Hasmanová Marhánková at the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen, Czech Republic.
Ruth Dempsey: How did the women's everyday lives change after their husband's death?
Jaroslava Hasmanová Marhánková: Their husband's death was a turning point: a milestone that changed the women's lives.
Things that they had looked forward to in retirement were no longer possible. When one woman's husband died of a heart attack at age of 52, her dreams of a shared country retirement evaporated in a moment.
More practically, several of the women did not have a driver's license so getting around became more difficult. At times, even visiting family and friends was a challenge.
RD: Some spent large periods of time taking care of ailing family members. Zita, 74, took early retirement to care for a dependent mother, then spent seven years caring for an ill father, followed by caring for her partner. "I am actually free for the first time since 2006," she remarked. "But I don't know what it's good for at this age."
JHM: This is actually a very common experience for a lot of older women. Women still carry the major burden of care.
I want to stress that during our interview Zita gave no indication that she somehow regretted her decision to care for her parents and her partner. However, this experience significantly influenced the way she saw her life. She was determined to use her "freedom" to do the things that she was unable to do in the past.
RD: Women took different paths as they began to rebuild their lives. You dub one approach: "The complete escape." Can you give me an example?
JHM: This approach signaled a retreat from everything that reminded the women of their painful loss. Often, it was motivated by practical considerations such as the need for cheaper housing and the emotional urge to forget.
For example, one woman decided to sell the family home and buy an apartment in a much larger town, where one of her daughters lived. This meant saying good-bye to old friends and her beloved home.
I met her again recently, and she spoke enthusiastically of her new life, which included involvement in amateur theater and learning to play the drums.
RD: Many of the women pursued new activities . . .
JHM: That's right. The women in my study were retired, but at an age when they had lots of energy. Some spent more time with their grandchildren. Others turned to activities that were closed to them as busy wives and mothers such as singing in the choir, taking dancing lessons and so on.
RD: In the second part of your study, you focus on women's attitudes toward forming new intimate relationships. What did you find?
JHM: Past studies have shown men are more interested than women in forming new intimate relationships in later years. This was also the case for the women I interviewed.
All of them explicitly ruled out the possibility of getting married again. Likewise, they were reserved about forming other types of partnerships with men.
Women enjoyed maintaining their household and arranging their lives based on their own preferences. They frequently described remarriage as a threat to their independence and lifestyle. They did not want to take on caregiving responsibilities again.
During one of my visits to a senior centre, I asked a group of women involved in various activities why they thought men made greater efforts to find a new partner. Laughingly, three of the women responded: "They are not looking for a wife, but a servant."
Among the women I interviewed, only three formed new intimate relationships. All three refused to remarry, and only one lived with her new partner.
The new relationships were based on different rules. Men were described as a friend or buddy.
RD: But the women did not rule out intimate relations in general . . .
JHM: This is a very important point. Indeed, the women emphasized the need to share their free time and experiences with someone else, or, as one participant put it, the need to have "your own someone."
Many of the women I interviewed found their own someone among other widows.
RD: Maria put an ad in the paper seeking a woman friend to meet for coffee. What response did she get?
JHM: Yes, Maria used the ad to search of her own someone. She was looking for a female friend. She was shocked to receive responses from men who were clearly seeking an intimate partner.
Maria, who was involved in a host of activities, described the men who wrote to her as passive and uninterested in social life – unsuitable, she noted, to be "my someone."
RD: The women who did form relationships spoke highly of their new friends. One noted: "My husband was good, he was understanding, but Rudolf is better. Rudolf is better in every way."
JHM: Yes, Milada was in her mid-70s and one of the few women in the study, who found a new partner. They met on a weekly basis. She referred to him as a friend.
Talking about her life, she said her deceased husband would always retain a unique place in her life because they established a family and spent their life together. The past is not something that can be repeated.
At the same time, she stressed that she had found in her friend Rudolf a kind of support missing from her marriage. She found someone who was interested in her activities and appreciated her optimism.
RD: What do you take from the study?
JHM: I was struck by how much these women valued their independence, their strength in overcoming difficulties and their courage in creating a life of their own.
The women's refusal to remarry, stemmed not from a rejection of partnerships with men, but recognition that the traditional form of marriage came with different obligations and benefits for men and women.
They had spent most of their lives caring for others. Now in older age, they found time to cultivate their own dreams and explore new possibilities.