As you can imagine, my research files for the "Positive Aging" columns are filled with statistics. For example, today there are 13.6 million widows in America, and about 700,000 women become a widow in the U.S. each year. On average, they survive for about 14 years after their husband's death. Sadly, I became part of that statistic last month when, after 20 years together, my husband died.
It would be nice if I could write that I was prepared emotionally and financially for such a tragic event, but the truth is that just about everything connected with being a "surviving spouse" has caught me off guard. In this column, I will share some of the unexpected aspects related to being on your own as a woman over 65.
Most of us are familiar with The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, which categorizes the potentially negative effect of life events on a scale of 1 to 100. No. 2, with a mean value of 73, is divorce, and death of a spouse tops the list at 100. Experts agree that grief, heartache and shock dominate the first three months after a husband's death, and deeply felt sadness over the loss of a life partner negatively affects your well-being for the rest of your life.
When a husband dies, a widow faces a higher risk of dying over the next few months. This has been labeled the "widowhood effect." According to a 2013 study in the Journal of Public Health based on over 12,000 participants who were followed for 10 years, surviving spouses have a 66 percent increased chance of dying within the first three months after their partner's death.
According to the Social Security Administration, the rate of poverty among elderly widows is three to four times higher than that of their married peers. In 2016, two-thirds of Americans over age 65 living in poverty were women. This is in part because when her spouse dies, an American widow sees a 37 percent decline in her household income. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the median income for women over the age of 65 is only about $17,000.
Widowers are more likely to remarry than widows — and do it sooner. Also, most married women predecease their husbands. According to Dr. Ken Doka, a gerontology consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, elderly women who are left living on their own really need an active and strong support network of family and friends to help counteract their grief and loneliness of losing a spouse.
Those of us who lose our husbands but live in America are luckier than most. There are 258,000,000 widows worldwide. Almost half of them live in extreme poverty, and many are subject to cruel violence. Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has summed up a wife's bereavement by saying, "For many women, becoming a widow does not just mean the heartache of losing a husband, but often losing everything else as well."
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.