"The notion of love-starved widows has become so entrenched in American culture that it has been a sitcom staple and the subject of an endless succession of jokes." But it seems that's one stereotype women have outlived.
A piece in the Times claims that the newest generation of widows and widowers sees a dramatic shift from the dynamic they knew in married life: widows feel comfortable being independent, while a generation of men who rarely learned to cook or keep house finds itself lonely and dependent. Often responsible for organizing the family social lives, women generally have an easier time maintaining a circle of friends and contact with family and neighbors - in part because, perhaps, men of this generation might feel uncomfortable being dependent or seeking help. And perhaps partly as a result, a far higher percentage of widowers over 65 choose to remarry than do their female counterparts.
Left to their own devices, older men don't eat as well as older women, are less likely to seek medical care when they are sick, and more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Older women have more chronic diseases, in part because they live longer, but older men are more likely to die suddenly from heart attacks and other catastrophic, stress-related diseases. Men over 65 are five times as likely as women to commit suicide. Divorced and widowed men have suicide rates three times higher than that of older men living with a spouse.
While it's delightful to hear that older women are increasingly happy and independent - and the truth of these assertions are certainly borne out anecdotally, I know in my own family - I don't like the tone of some of the comments in this piece. Especially this:
In a strange twist of fortune - some might call it poetic justice - age can bring with it something of a reversal in gender roles. The rise of an old girls' network, friends and family who see women through a lifetime of transitions, often contrasts sharply with the decline of the old boys' network, the professional associations that secure young men's places in the world but offer little support or solace in later life.
"Poetic justice?" Yuck. I get the point they're making - but I think this callousness belittles both these women's accomplishments and the sorrow of those men who have succumbed to loneliness. Certainly no one who's seen a grandfather struggling through learning basic housekeeping and eating poorly can take any larger satisfaction from the turn of events. Why can't we instead realize that the same rigidity of roles that we deplore could hurt not just women, but men, and find that not a source of satisfaction, but of sorrow? Nowadays, one hopes, the increased equality at both home and work will also serve to benefit men as well as women - that they, with some knowledge of cooking and caring for themselves, won't be left helpless.
The author also talks about the "liberation" some widows feel, and the plans for a new life, "none of which involved managing another man's domestic life." While this may be true for many, I rankle at dismissing decades of life according only to the modern terms that equate marriage of that generation only with domestic slavery. I'm thinking of my great-aunt here; after her husband's death, she took full advantage of her "freedom," traveling and enjoying friends, volunteer work and culture. She was happy, and yes, surely free of the need for security that may have bedeviled widows of earlier generations - but she'd also have loved a few more years with her husband. Maybe I'm thinking too of yesterday's "Modern Love" that painted a touching portrait of a long marriage and the joy of its companionship. Are men of this generation frequently troubled by a "loss of status?" Are women often happy to stay unmarried? Surely. But aging in our society is a lot more complicated than this - as are the individuals.
With Friends Aplenty, Many Widows Choose Singlehood [NY Times]
Yes, We Do. Even At Our Age. [NY Times]