Widows and Divorcees in Later Life: On Their Own Again
by Carol L. Jenkins, PhD, Editor 202 pp., ISBN: 0-7890-2192-7 Published by The Haworth Press, Inc., 2004
Reviewed by Nancy Locke Capers, LMFT#41057
Carol Jenkins notes in the introduction that both youth and physical attractiveness, which are greatly valued in our culture, are lost to older women. On the other hand, this wonderful compilation of research articles regarding the death of a spouse or loss through divorce is packed with interesting and insightful data. It is a text useful for academic purposes or for the reader who is interested in the repercussions of loss late in life. A wide range of issues are addressed including economic security, loss of social status, patriarchal views, mental and physical health, and the role of a support system.
Along with research involving white women, this text includes a cross-cultural perspective, from Africa to Wales, from Mexico to the South Pacific. Reading about how other cultures treat widows and divorcees (or women who had "retired from marriage") was fascinating. It presented a great variety of women's experiences, widening the bandwidth of knowledge, and therefore, the options for all women. Historically, minority groups and divorced women have experienced double-digit poverty rates in retirement.
One section of the book addresses "Projected Retirement Income of Divorced Women in the Baby Boom Cohort" suggests policy options to address the retirement needs of divorced women. This study points out that most baby boomers will enjoy higher incomes in retirement than did their parents, however, some subgroups, such as unmarried women and less educated individuals, will fall behind.
Policy-makers are called upon to consider community based alternatives to family caregivers as the challenges of providing long-term care for disabled minority populations increases. Factors other than lack of kin availability, such as inferior local long-term care infrastructure and non-culturally competent service providers are elements at play in minority (in this case, Mexican) populations.
One study from Kings College in London, looked at the marked decline in intergenerational co-residence, that has led to apprehension that family support for the elderly is diminishing in Great Britain. Another particularly interesting study, by Jenkins, examines how care arrangement choices are made for older widows, which included family members and professional service providers. The major theme was maintaining the older woman's independence, noting that often decisions are made without consulting the older person. Concerns about safety, the flexible meanings of continuing independence,
responsibility, and caregiving reciprocity are explored. Once again, the findings have implications for service providers and policymakers, as well as individuals finding themselves in a position of helping to make decisions for a parent or relative.
One particularly interesting piece examines bereavement patterns for widows, which show a high correlation between the first two years of bereavement and a 40 percent higher risk of hospitalization than women not recently widowed. The opposing experience is also mentioned
regarding women who had been married to dominant spouses and may feel a newfound sense of autonomy when their husbands pass away.
I was surprised to learn about the Older Americans Act (in the U.S.) which provides states with additional funding to provide support and guidance for caregivers.
Widows and Divorcees in Later Life ameliorated some of my own anxiety about the future. As a middle-aged woman who will be facing these issues, I found this an absorbing and engaging text that was informative and stimulating. I was struck by the varied opportunities that diverge from the concept of widows and divorcees being "on their own again."