Widowhood refers to the status of a person whose spouse has died and who has not remarried. Women in this situation are referred to as widows, and men as widowers. In the United States and other Western nations, approximately 6 percent of the total
Widowhood is commonly viewed as a life transition. A transition is a major change in life circumstances that takes place over a relatively short period of time but has lasting effects on large areas of a person's life. It requires the development of new life habits or ways of coping. Widowhood is one of the most stressful life transitions, although most people adjust successfully over time.
Most research on widowhood has focused on women, partly because widows outnumber widowers by nearly five to one. It is estimated that half of all marriages end with the death of the husband, whereas only one-fifth end with the death of the wife in Western societies, and women generally outlive men and men usually marry women who are younger than they are. Further, while most older widowed people do not remarry, widowers have remarriage rates over eight times as high as those of widows.
Different societies attach very different customs and values to widowhood, and these have a strong influence on how it is experienced. Most widows go through an intense grieving process early in widowhood, marked by feelings of depression, mood changes, disrupted sleep patterns, obsessive thoughts about the deceased, and disorientation. However, the intensity of grief usually decreases significantly within a year. Many widows and widowers begin to develop new strengths and talents and remake their social networks to include new friends and contacts. Intense grief is not required for recovery from widowhood.
CONSEQUENCES OF WIDOWHOOD FOR HEALTH AND WELL-BEING
Research on the consequences of widowhood for health and mental health is fraught with contradictory findings. Early studies found high mortality rates among widows, but recent work has not replicated these results. One of the biggest problems reported by both widows and widowers is loneliness, which may last well beyond the usual period of mourning. Symptoms of depression and decreased life satisfaction may also last for several years.
Widowhood does not appear to worsen health. However, it disrupts daily routines, especially those associated with food preparation and consumption. Widowed people commonly report decreased social participation. Among women, consequences of widowhood may include a lower income and, in older age groups, increased likelihood of nursing home placement.
One critical factor in how well the surviving spouse copes is the manner of the other spouse's death. Suicide can be devastating for the surviving spouse, and accidental death is more traumatic than death resulting from an illness. However, adjustment may also be difficult when the spouse's death follows a prolonged condition, such as Alzheimer's disease. In general, individuals are likely to cope better if they have had some time to prepare for imminent widowhood but are not exhausted by prolonged or intense caregiving.
A key concept in understanding the impacts of widowhood is that of "on-time" versus "off-time," which refer to the surviving spouse's life stage. Being widowed in later life is on-time and can be anticipated. In contrast, being widowed in early adulthood is off-time, and is both unexpected and likely to entail concurrent stresses, such as the grief of dependent children or the loss of the major source of household income.
Men are affected more by widowhood than women. Widowhood is less likely to be anticipated by men, and men are generally more dependent on their spouse for social and emotional support. A person who is devoted to his or her role as a husband or wife has a greater adjustment to make when widowed than an individual who has other valued roles.
Widowhood may be experienced as a positive transition. It may even come as a relief if the marriage was unhappy or burdensome. In comparison with married people, widowed people express less strain and a greater capacity to make plans and carry them out. Widowed individuals adjust better if they are involved in physical activity, can rely on support from family members
POLICY AND SERVICE PROVISION
Dealing with widowhood has remained largely in the private domain. Widowed people and their families are usually left to cope as best they can, with little attention from government or service providers. In contrast, other transitions commonly experienced by older people (such as retirement and becoming a caregiver), although less stressful and disruptive, have attracted considerable policy attention and service provision.
However, most older people have regular contact with their doctors, and general medical practitioners are in a good position to monitor any enduring, negative impacts of widowhood and to suggest appropriate interventions.
YVONNE D. WELLS
COLETTE J. BROWNING
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