The death of a spouse or partner is one of the most difficult experiences people will endure in life, requiring more psychological and behavioral adjustment than just about any other period of life transition. And there is ample research that confirms it.
The Changing Lives of Older Couples (CLOC) study, conducted out of the University of Michigan, collected information on the effects of spousal bereavement over time. Using a sample of 1,532 married men and women over age 65 in the Detroit area, the CLOC researchers conducted initial face-to-face interviews between June 1987 and April 1988. The researchers then did follow-up interviews of widowed spouses (and also with same-age, same-sex, same-race matched controls) at 6, 12, and 48 months after the loss, continuing until 1993. Depression was measured for all participants, and various social, psychological, and physical functioning criteria were also analyzed. The study found that widowed persons in the study had significantly higher levels of depression symptoms compared with the controls.
The data collected in the CLOC study has been used in numerous other studies to explore the impact of grief on the surviving spouse.
A 2002 University of Michigan study published in The Gerontologist used the CLOC data to look at the effects of a spouse or partner’s death on seniors’ participation in social activities. The researchers found that over 70 percent of widowed seniors had the same level of interest in having contact with relatives and friends as when their spouses were alive. Yet, over a third reported that friends and relatives showed more interest in having contact with them when they became widowed. Nearly 90 percent of the widowed seniors reported that they “tried to keep busy or tried to get involved in some activity as a way to cope with the negative effects of widowhood.”
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology examined the connection and frequency of developing symptoms of depression following the death of a spouse. Also drawing on data from the CLOC, researchers determined that widowed spouses’ scores were significantly higher for symptoms of loneliness, as well as sadness, depressed mood, and appetite loss, and significantly lower for happiness and enjoyment of life. But the researchers also noted that there is a distinct difference between bereavement and depression, and medical and mental health professionals need to consider the differences between the two when making diagnoses and treatment recommendations for grieving seniors.
Confronting a new reality
Socialization for the surviving spouse often dips prior to their partner’s death, since frequently, there is an injury or illness that must be addressed. Looking at the findings of these various studies, in short, seniors who are coping with the death of a spouse or partner are interested in resuming their social activities—whether that means spending time with friends, returning to their house of worship, going to cultural events, etc.—yet they are also likely dealing with the depression-like symptoms that go along with the grieving process, including feelings of loneliness and sadness.
I’m reminded of a story I recently shared in a presentation about a woman, 83 years of age and still mostly healthy, but she’s experienced quite a bit of change in her life recently. Her husband passed away unexpectedly a couple years ago, so she now lives alone. She doesn’t trust her driving anymore, so the number of days she gets out has declined quite a bit. She’s had close friends over the years, but many have either moved to be closer to family or have passed away. Her family is nearby; they visit and call, but they have busy lives of their own. And while she’s a generally positive person, she can’t help but feel lonely at times, to feel like she’s lost purpose in life, or even worse, that she’s a burden.
It is easy to understand why someone in a situation like this widowed woman would be hesitant to make any major decisions about their future. With the dramatic life change she is experiencing, the status quo can feel safe, familiar, and comfortable. Yet this is a time when a widowed spouse does need to consider the years ahead of them and begin to make a plan, if they haven’t already done so. While staying in the existing home often seems like the simplest answer, upkeep can be difficult for one person, and should health concerns arise, coordinating care can present numerous challenges.
For these reasons, and many more, a senior living community, such as a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, or life plan community), may be the perfect housing and care solution for people who are recently widowed.
A solution for multiple concerns
As I’ve written about before, loneliness and social isolation can be extremely detrimental to seniors’ mental and physical health, and for someone who may not have lived by themselves for over half a century, the bereavement period following a spouse’s death can be a very lonely time. But for those who make the decision to move to a CCRC, many of these issues can be addressed or even prevented. And starting a new chapter in life in a vibrant new community can be cathartic—even exciting—for some widows and widowers.
CCRCs offer residents an array of opportunities to socialize and interact with others—at meals in the dining hall, in exercise classes, at organized group activities, or in other social and educational programs offered by the community. New people mean lots of potential new friends who are in a similar place in life, and that can open the door for many more social opportunities.
And on top of the many events offered that can help stave off loneliness, CCRC residents also have the luxury and comfort of knowing that if their health should decline for whatever reason, they will have ready access to a full continuum of care services to address the specific type of assistance they need. This feature of CCRCs can be the source of great peace of mind for residents. The alternative of confronting age-related decline or health issues alone in their home can feel daunting, frightening, and for those who worry about becoming a burden to their adult children, living alone can be a nonstarter.
If you are a senior who has lost your spouse or partner, it may be the right time to begin exploring your senior living options. myLifeSite’s free online community search tool offers information on hundreds of CCRCs across the nation and is a great place to begin your research.