Spousal Death: Gender, Individual and Racial Differences
in Adjustment and Coping among Elderly Adults
Spousal Death or Widowhood among Elderly Adults is the most significantly distressful and difficult event which entail major adjustment at the time of increasing dependency of the elderly adult individuals on their spouse due to the physiological effects of aging in addition to their retirement from employment (Hurlock, 1982, p.432). The experience and adjustment problems that arise in widowhood differ among male elderly adults and female elderly adults. These differences in the experience and adjustment problems are contingent on gender-based roles and responsibilities that husbands and wives fulfill in their marriage. Husbands depend on their wives for emotional support and management of the household whereas wives rely on their husbands for financial management and maintenance of the household (Carr, 2004). This research is a consolidation of studies and literature about spousal death, its effects and adjustment among Elderly adult individuals in later life. This presents the gender and individual differences in adjustment and coping behaviors between male and female elderly adult individuals in dealing with spousal death.
Emotional Effects and Adjustment Problems in Spousal Death
Spousal death causes male and female elderly adult individuals to experience increased depressive symptoms and recovery from this emotional effect takes an approximate of one to two years (Iachina et al., n.d.). Male elderly adult individuals revealed higher depressive symptoms than female adult elderly individuals in widowhood and this is due to their lack of church attendance, resentment towards domestic tasks and inadequate ability in child rearing. In comparison, elderly adult women reported a non-significant and low prevalence in depressive symptoms (Lee et al., 2001). Furthermore, upon the retirement of widowers or male elderly adult individuals and loss of their wives to spousal death, widowers are pushed to deal with these two life events simultaneously. In the absence of the preoccupation brought by employment, widowers are immersed in their state of loss which leads them to feel the pain, loneliness and sense of inadequacy without their wives to whom they have been accustomed to depend on for companionship, emotional support, nurturance for their physical needs and management of the household. Furthermore, widowers encounter residential problems. The independence that widowers used to have made them feel reluctant to live in the home of their children and depend for their care. On the other hand, widows or female elderly adult individuals encounter financial deprivation without their husbands. The decrease in financial stability affects the lifestyle, leisure activities, social life and residency. Widows lack of income leads them to live in smaller homes, resort to living with their children or in elderly institutions. These overall changes in the living of widows cause them to feel loneliness and despair (Hurlock, 1982).
Gender differences in dealing with adjustment problems and coping behaviors in Spousal Death
Studies and literature state that male and female elderly adult individuals have disparate coping behaviors that they manifest in dealing with the adjustment problems of spousal death. Elderly women have more coping behaviors and resources than elderly men (Buchebner-Ferstl, n.d.). These coping behaviors among elderly men and women are influenced by their nature and orientation. Women are attributed with a more sociable nature and they are emotionally-oriented whereas men by nature are problem-oriented. The sociable nature and emotional-orientation of elderly women enable them to seek and gain more social relationships to which they receive greater social support from their families and friends. These social relationships provide elderly women the opportunity to express their grief and acquire role models for coping strategies. Furthermore, nurturing their husbands before their death causes elderly women to be confronted with the nearness of the death of their husbands. This causes the elderly women to become emotionally prepared and provide anticipatory coping. Furthermore, elderly adult women also resort to taking care of pets such as dogs or cats to alleviate their loneliness and fulfill their need for companionship (Hurlock, 1982, p.433). In contrast, male elderly adult individuals have fewer social relationships and do not resort to them for emotional support nor seek for role models to emulate for effective coping over spousal death. Men are less likely to confront spousal death and suppress their emotions whereas their coping behaviors are characterized with smoking and frequent alcohol drinking. These destructive coping behaviors are due to the unanticipated sudden loss of their wives, causing a sense of disorientation among male elderly adult individuals. Without the roles that their wives used to fill for them, they are enabled to function in household chores and the lack of skills for cooking among most of the elderly adult individuals causes the development of nutritional deficiencies. Thus, male elderly adult individuals are the most depressed than female elderly adult individuals and they are likely to cope with spousal death through new romantic relationships or remarriage. These coping behaviors that constitute the process of adjustment are presented as the Dual process or Oscillation model. This model states that the adjustment of elderly adult individuals in widowhood fluctuates between the loss orientation and restoration orientation. The loss orientation involves the emotional and mental coping to spousal death whereas the restoration orientation pertain to the task of mastering the functional skills that are necessary in the changes in the daily living of elderly adult individuals (Buchebner-Ferstl, n.d.).
Individual Differences in the effects of Spousal Death
Studies reveal that elderly adult individuals in widowhood experience symptoms of depression. On the contrary these symptoms do not arrive at the clinical point of depression and that these are found to have no significant individual differences. Moreover, individual differences had been identified in the stages of the spousal death which encompass pre-spousal death, actual spousal death and post-spousal death.
Post-spousal death showed higher level of depressive symptoms in elderly adult individuals than pre-spousal death. The progression of time had exemplified that the high levels of depressive symptoms fluctuate towards the level of depressive symptoms
that are experienced at the pre-spousal death stage. In addition, the low levels of depressive symptoms among elderly adult individuals are associated with the high levels of coping efficacy. This presents that the depressive symptoms is influenced by the ability of elderly adult individuals to cope with spousal death. Moreover, the high levels of depressive symptoms in the pre-spousal death stage are related to the high levels of marital quality among elderly adult individuals. This shows that elderly adult individuals who are greatly satisfied with their relationship and marriage with their spouse are more likely to experience high levels of depressive symptoms prior to the death of their spouse thus they had already grieved and exhibited coping behaviors which lessened their depressive levels at the time of the actual spousal death stage.
Racial Differences in Spousal Death
The experience of depressive symptoms and anxiety due to spousal death does not differ between Black elderly adult individuals and White elderly adult individuals. Symptoms of grief were similar among Black and White elderly adult individuals. The Blacks expressed low levels of despair and anger symptoms than the White elderly adult individuals. Lesser anger symptoms were found in Black elderly adult individuals as compared to the White elderly individuals. These overall emotional effects of spousal death which include depressive symptoms, anxiety, grief, despair and anger is lower among Black elderly individuals due to the equal division of household tasks between husbands and wives brought by financial instability and women were influenced to contribute to earn a living, low marital quality or the satisfaction in the relationship between the couples due to the frequency of marital conflicts and expectation of infidelity. Furthermore, Black elderly adult individuals were emotional less affected by spousal death due to their wider social relationship and active participation in religious activities of the church. Thus, Blacks have lesser need for coping behaviors and adjustment to spousal death (Carr, 2004). Findings showed that non-confrontational strategies were similarly preferred as coping methods in spousal death among American and Mexican elderly adult individuals. However, Americans showed to apply confrontational strategies than Mexican elderly adult individuals. Moreover, combining independent action and emotional release as coping methods to spousal death have been proven to be significantly effective in physical and psychological well-being among American and Mexican elderly adult individuals. These coping methods had further developed into other forms of coping behaviors which include diversion or ignoring the problem, acceptance of spousal death, tension release and seeking for counsel. In addition, these coping strategies among Mexican elderly individuals revealed to be influenced by the culture-oriented support from their families (Ide et al., n.d.).
Gender Differences in Romantic Relationship after Spousal Death
Elderly adult individuals also cope with the emotional effects of spousal death and attain adjustment through the formation of new romantic relationship or remarriage. Studies reveal that this coping behavior positively leads to higher psychological well-being (Keren and Hasid, n.d.). The preference of elderly adult women for remarriage is influenced by younger age, despair, individual needs, desires, attributes and availability thus most of these elderly adult women are found to have higher household and income with less financial problems although seeking for companionship is characterized with great levels of anxiety (Moorman et al., n.d.). Contrarily, the choice for elderly adult women to remain single which is influenced by their ambivalence to keep or lose the new freedom that they experience as a widow whereas male elderly adults prefer remarriage due to their old age and decline in health (Davidson, n.d.).
Spousal Death causes greater depressive symptoms among male elderly individuals particularly White Americans due to their limited coping behaviors and greater dependency on their wives for household tasks, emotional support and nurturance which is hindered by their less sociable and emotionally repressed nature.
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