Experiencing spousal loss in later life is common, and is one of the most stressful life events. Widowhood is particularly problematic when it comes to development of persistent depressive symptoms. But, the negative impacts are not universal; although most people experience significant sadness after losing a loved one, some individuals are able to recover relatively quickly without experiencing persisting mental health consequences. Those who experience lasting depressive symptoms, are likely to face further health problems and a lower quality of life.
Depression following widowhood is particularly problematic for men. Although there is significant variation, research suggests that men, on average, are more vulnerable to depression following widowhood than women. Many have assumed that a major reason for these increased risks relate to lack of social support. Older men today maintain fewer social contacts and have less social support available (outside of their marriage) prior to spousal loss. This leaves men more vulnerable. Despite these differences, social support disparities cannot completely explain the increased risks men tend to face. A growing body of literature suggests that psychological resources, and “psychological resilience” in particular, may play an important role in shaping how older adults respond to stressful events. Resilience can be thought of as a process of successful adaptation following a stressful or traumatic event.
With my colleagues, Professors Dawn Carr and Miles Taylor, I recently conducted a study examining psychological resilience in the context of widowhood. We examined the role of psychological resilience in buffering depressive symptoms associated with spousal loss for men and women. Using data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationally representative study that follows adults 51 years and older and their spouses over time, we examined changes in depressive symptoms for men and women who became widowed relative to their continuously married counterparts. Given that most people recover from spousal loss within two years of losing a spouse, we examined those experiencing persisting depression – those with elevated depressive symptoms approximately two years following a loss.
Our findings showed that resilience (or what we think of as our internal resources), work in concert with external resources like social support, to shape how men and women respond to widowhood. We discovered that the effect of resilience differs for men and women. Psychological resilience is an important and gendered factor shaping mental health, but it only buffers the negative consequences of widowhood for men. High levels of resilience did little to reduce the increased depressive symptoms for women who were widowed. Conversely, high levels of residence protected men from increased depressive symptoms following spousal loss, allowing those men to maintain similar well-being as their married counterparts. Alternatively, men with low levels of resilience exhibited the significantly larger increases in depressive symptoms following spousal loss than women.
Our results have helped us think about future research and implications for practitioners. Persistent depression following spousal loss hinders our ability to cope, so it is important to identify ways to help vulnerable individuals at risk of becoming depressed. Resilience may play an important role in shaping these processes, and future research should explore factors that bolster resilience in later life. Future research should take a more comprehensive approach to understanding the gender differences in response to widowhood, including a broader range of both internal and external resources. Dr. Carr, Dr. Taylor, and I are now working on better understanding how psychological resilience influences physical health, and hope to learn more about the mechanisms involved in how resilience shapes our health and wellbeing at important life junctures.
Our article was recently published in The Gerontologist if you would like to read it in its entirety.
Brittany M. King is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, studying health and aging, social relationships, and bereavement.
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