The University Record, April 9, 2001

Research dispels some common myths about widowhood

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Losing a spouse is one of the most stressful events a person can experience. But most older adults are resilient and bounce back to earlier levels of physical and psychological health within 18 months of their loss, according to new research on bereavement from the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

The research also calls into question the widespread belief that the sudden death of a spouse is more difficult for the surviving member of the couple than a long-anticipated death, finding that for older men, especially, the sudden death of their wives is actually easier to handle psychologically than a lingering illness.

Moreover, the new findings debunk a longstanding doctrine of psychologists and bereavement counselors—that the more conflicted and unhappy the marital relationship, the more a guilt-ridden surviving spouse is likely to grieve. Instead, the research confirms the common-sense view that the closer a marital relationship was, the more depressed the surviving spouse is likely to be.

The research, some of which was presented March 31 at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in Washington, D.C., is part of an ongoing analysis of data from the ISR’s Changing Lives of Older Couples study, a prospective survey of a random community-based sample of 1,532 married men and women 65 and older, started in 1987 by Camille Wortman, now at the State University of New York, Stonybrook; U-M researchers James House and James Lepkowski; and Ronald Kessler, now at Harvard University.

House is director and senior research scientist, Survey Research Center; professor of sociology; research scientist, Epidemiology, School of Public Health; and faculty associate, Institute of Gerontology. Lepkowski is senior research scientist, Survey Research Center; associate professor of biostatistics; and adjunct professor of sociology.

Other findings from the study will be published later this year in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences. The analysis is funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging to Randolph Nesse, professor of psychiatry and faculty associate, Research Center for Group Dynamics, who has been instrumental in bringing an evolutionary perspective to psychiatry and the rest of medicine.

Over the years, the researchers monitored the deaths of participants, and followed up with interviews of the surviving spouses at six months, 18 months and four years after their losses. They also re-interviewed members of married couples in the study who had not yet lost their spouses, then matched these still-married elders with the widows and widowers on key demographic variables, including income, education and health.

In addition to detailed information on each person’s physical and mental health, collected both before and after a spouse’s death, the study contains information on the quality of marital relationships.

“Collecting data before the spouse dies allows us to avoid both positive and negative recall bias,”

sociologist Deborah Carr explains. “Some people just can’t say anything negative about a spouse who’s dead. ‘Oh, he didn’t drink a drop.’ ‘He was a saint.’ Other people get so depressed, their current mood colors their assessment of the quality of their marriage. They remember things being a lot worse than they really were.”

Carr, assistant professor of sociology; assistant research scientist, Population Studies Administration; and assistant research scientist, Survey Research Center, found that the closer the marital relationship, the more depressed both men and women were likely to be after their spouse died. She also found that surviving spouses who were better off economically, as measured by home ownership, were likely to be more depressed than peers who lived in apartments or retirement communities.

“Those who own a home may do worse because they have the added strain of caring for a house,” Carr speculates. “They may be more socially isolated, lonely and even afraid of living in a home alone, compared to surviving spouses who live in apartments and have neighbors close by.”

In addition, she found that widows who were highly dependent on their husbands for male-stereotyped tasks such as financial management and home repairs were at higher risk for anxiety as widows.

“These findings suggest a changing picture for bereavement among older couples,” Carr notes, “as more egalitarian divisions of labor make women less dependent on their husbands for home repair and financial management, and as couples are more likely to dissolve dissatisfying marriages and remain in unions with higher levels of marital satisfaction.”

Carr also examined whether forewarning of a spouse’s death affected the survivors’ risk of heart disease and psychological adjustment at six and 18 months after the loss.

Overall, she found that roughly one-third of widowed persons experienced no forewarning of their spouse’s death, while another third reported more than six months forewarning. The average warning time was five–six months.

She found that prolonged forewarning (more than six months) significantly increased the likelihood that men reported having heart problems six months after their spouse’s death.

But by 18 months after their wives’ deaths, the men’s health, as measured by heart problems, had rebounded to previous levels.

Carr’s collaborators include John Sonnega, adjunct lecturer in health behavior and health education, and research fellow, Survey Research Center.