A new Swiss study says that widows and widowers still mourn their spouses as much as ever, but compared to 35 years ago, everyday life is easier, especially for women.
Widows, at least in Switzerland, have fewer financial troubles and more social connections than their counterparts in 1979, but widowers still complain of loneliness, researchers found.
The authors wanted to see if the negative effects of widowhood on psychological and physical health had changed over time.
“Public knowledge about spousal loss in old age has in general a negative connotation -- bereavement is usually seen as an individual issue,” Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello told Reuters Health by email.
“However bereaved individuals vary considerably in their reactions to loss, and little is known on how the historical context contributes to adaptation to spousal loss,” said Perrig-Chiello of the University of Bern who led the study.
Past research has shown that men and women react differently to the loss of a spouse. Widowers tend to be vulnerable to loneliness, whereas widows tend to be more distressed by economic issues, especially if their husband took care of family finances.
For their study, published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Perrig-Chiello and colleagues examined health and depression information from two separate Swiss studies involving adults aged 65 years and older, most of them women.
The studies took place in 1979 and 2011 and included a total of 753 widows and widowers, as well as 1,517 married people to act as a comparison group.
In both studies, the participants were asked to rate their own physical and mental health and to describe any difficulties related to the loss of a spouse, such as losing a sense of purpose in life, needing to do everything alone, feelings of loneliness and dealing with social and financial problems.
The researchers found that subjective reports of health improved over time for both married and widowed participants but widowed people fared worse than marrieds in both time periods.
Widowed people in 2011, especially women, reported fewer social and financial difficulties than their counterparts in 1979, however. Rates of depression among widows did not differ over time.
“Men reported more complaints about loneliness than women at both time points, whereas widows in 2011 reported significantly less loneliness than their counterparts in 1979,” Perrig-Chiello said.
She thinks that women seem to take greater advantage of new and enhanced social service programs that began in Switzerland between the two time points.
These programs provide educational, recreational and psychological services for older people, she said.
Perrig-Chiello said most bereaved people adapt well to the new situation, “however the adaptation to the new situation needs time for finding a new daily routine, but also a personal, deliberate effort for defining a new identity, investment for keeping or redefining social contacts.”
She added that family members, friends and also social groups can help provide support.
Perrig-Chiello noted that only a minority of widows and widowers exhibit chronic or complicated grief and require professional help from psychologists, psychiatrists or pastoral counselors.
“But also the help of a social worker in case of precarious financial situations can be a help, since - as our results show - sufficient financial resources may help to relieve secondary stressors,” she said.
Karen Holden said she thinks that today there’s much more support for women, socially and in the form of information, which helps in times of financial stress.
“I think with the increase in divorce, singlehood through marital dissolution is more common, so you get much more information – so there’s also much more information for widows,” Holden told Reuters Health.
“Also, marriages are much more shared financially, so you don’t get the disorientation of suddenly having to manage on your own,” said Holden, who studies poverty and aging at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and was not involved in the study.
She added that today men are much less likely to shield their wealth from their wives compared to the past.
Holden said the study findings may show that we’re managing financial distress better now, not only after widowhood but also during the process of the husbands’ death so that women are less stressed when they actually are widowed.