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The challenging plight of widows

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Widows constitute about half of women aged 70+ in Western countries, and 11% of all adult women. Despite their substantial numbers, social scientists have devoted less attention to them than to other groups of older people. Widows are the forgotten demographic. In recent work we have tried to remedy this deficiency by examining how widows compare to married older women in terms of how they spend their time, whom they spend it with, how they feel about their time and their lives, and their mental state. We do not consider widowers, a much smaller group (because men do not live as long, marry women averaging two years younger, and—if widowed—face an advantageous gender balance in the dating/marriage market).

Time-diary data from the US, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands show that widows use time differently from married women, mainly by doing less household work and spending more time watching TV and on other leisure activities. The biggest cut is in time spent on food preparation and clean-up, about a 30% drop. Total time spent in their one-person households in these activities is less than half of that in older partnered couples. 

When their partner dies, American widows lose someone with whom they had spent over six of their daily waking hours. They are forced to adjust who they are with. Sadly, most of those six hours are not spent with anyone—the widow is alone for two-thirds of the time that she had spent with her partner. She spends a little bit more time with relatives right after being widowed, but that is a tiny amount.

The incidence of depression rises after a woman is widowed—by about 40%. Widows feel less pressured for time than married women of the same age and education. They also feel that they have more control over their daily lives, a big jump in feelings of freedom. That is especially true among widows whose partners suffered a long decline in health before dying. 

This reduction in the various dimensions of daily constraints is insufficient to make up for the loss of their loved ones. The death of a partner raises the likelihood of many symptoms of depression and implies significantly lower levels of well-being, as expressed by measures of life-satisfaction. Widows are about 40% less likely to say that they are satisfied or very satisfied with their lives than married older women. These feelings of dissatisfaction arise independent of how widows spend time—of what they do during their 24 hours. But whom they spend time with matters tremendously: a widow who spends no more time alone than a married woman is no less satisfied with her life.

Taken together, these results shed new light on this large group of women. They suggest the need for policies aimed at helping widows become more involved with society, at raising awareness of the importance of sharing time with others and thus limiting the loneliness that contributes to their reduced levels of well-being. 

Daniel S. Hamermesh is Editor-in-Chief, IZA World of Labor, and Distinguished Scholar, Barnard College, USA.
Michał Myck is Director at Centre for Economic Analysis (CenEA) in Szczecin, Poland, and a Research Fellow of IZA.
Monika Oczkowska is Senior Research Economist at Centre for Economic Analysis (CenEA) in Szczecin, Poland.

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