Society's invisible men
Study sheds new light on the lives of older widowers, an often
Like many retired men, Ralph Shapiro follows an informal routine of leisure activities. In the morning, he watches C-Span and CNN to keep up with current events. In the afternoon, he drives to a nearby Jewish community center for several hours of vigorous exercise. In the evening and during other spare moments, he reads, satisfying an eclectic taste that ranges from politics and history to microbiology.
But unlike a majority of retired men, Mr. Shapiro has no one at home with whom he can share activities and conversation. He is a widower. In the 3-1/2 years since his wife of 51 years died, a palpable stillness has prevailed in the suburban ranch house shared by the couple in Needham, Mass.
"We were very close as companions," Shapiro says. "There was constant conversation. Now the only conversation going on is an internal one, which is not the same." He adds, "You read, you have ideas, and you want to discuss them with someone."
Shapiro is one of 2 million widowers over the age of 65 in the United States. Outnumbered 4 to 1 by the 8.3 million widows in the same age group and little-studied by researchers, these men constitute an often-forgotten group.
"Many of these men become almost invisible," says Dorothy Stratton, a sociologist at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, and co-author of a new study of older widowers. "They stay home and don't initiate social contact. People just assume they're OK."
Professor Stratton and an Ashland University colleague, Alinde Moore, conducted extensive interviews with 42 widowers, ranging in age from 58 to 94. They and other professionals find that widows and widowers both face many of the same challenges - grief, loneliness, and decisions about housing. But men, these specialists say, also face domestic and social adjustments.
"Men a lot of times are very much alone, especially the older widowers, because their wife did all the cooking and cleaning," says Janet Notaro, president of the Theos Foundation in Pittsburgh, an international group serving widows and widowers. "When a wife dies, especially when it's sudden, they don't even know how to change a bed. They don't know how to use a washer, they don't know how to cook."
Many widowers, Mrs. Notaro finds, pick up domestic skills from family members. Others learn from mistakes - "putting a red shirt in with a white load, and everything comes out pink."
For Shapiro, there were no pink loads. "I don't have any problem mastering the ordinary things of life, because I've always done that," he says, noting that he did the cooking when he and his wife were first married.
But for him, as for many older widowers, forging social contacts is more challenging. "I'm not a club joiner, so I don't have that as an outlet," says Shapiro, a retired meteorologist. Although he still maintains the friends he and his wife had, he sees them less often.
Phyllis Silverman, co-author with Scott Campbell of "Widower: When Men Are Left Alone," notes that the late wives of widowers typically handled the details of their social lives.
Explaining men's reluctance to take the initiative socially, Stratton recalls a widower she and Dr. Moore interviewed. "He told us, 'Right after the funeral people say, 'We'll keep in touch, we'll go out to lunch.' But they just don't follow up.' I said, 'Do you ever call them?' He looked at me like I had
just dropped in from the moon. Even though he was lonely and would enjoy going out, he wasn't going to pick up the phone."
She calls that a "hallmark difference" between widowed men and widowed women.
Most men also consider their wives their best friend, while women are more likely to have confidants. Says Mrs. Silverman, "Men often don't have a best friend and don't know what it's like to have a man friend they can call and go out with and chat about what's on their mind."
Certain social contacts can be awkward. In what Dr. Moore terms the "casserole-lady phenomenon," women appear at a widower's door with a casserole, "trying, in effect, to become an interest. Maybe dating is on their mind." One man told Moore and Stratton that his response was to invite each woman out for dinner once. Other men, unfamiliar with these overtures, said they would welcome such attention.
Men, far more than women, are likely to marry again. "Women grieve and men replace," quips Marjory Marvel, senior program specialist at AARP grief and loss programs in Washington. "That's the common thought, simply because men tend to remarry and women, because there are more of them, may not remarry."
Sheri Fox, a family-life educator at the Jewish Family and Community Service in Skokie, Ill., also finds that women are more likely to say, "I had the love of my life, and I could never be with anyone else again."
Similarly, some men "honor the individual who was their wife to a very high degree," Stratton says. "They cannot envision replacing her." Others honor the role of the wife. "They were devoted to the woman who was in that role. But when she is gone, they need the role filled again."
Notaro receives many calls from widowers wanting companionship. "They always start with, 'I'm a Christian man and a good man.' You know where they're going from there. It's cute. They just need a companion, to know somebody's there for them."
A quarter of the widowers in Stratton and Moore's study have remarried, often to a woman they had known earlier. A few more are in "permanent companionship" relationships.
Tom Laughlin of Bedford, Mass., was widowed in 1967 when his four children were young. "I could have gotten married about seven times after my wife died," he says, joking, "I had to buy seven pair of sneakers [to run away], because the kids didn't want a second mother."
Ms. Marvel and others acknowledge the loneliness men may feel, but warn against marrying too hastily. Among widowers who remarry within 18 months, she says, the divorce rate is high, "in large part because they haven't grieved sufficiently." 7 Silverman offers this advice: "To have a good second marriage, you have to find a place in that marriage for the first wife. You can't act as if the first marriage wasn't part of the person's life. It's not a competition. Nor can you replicate your first marriage. You should simply make a new marriage based on a new relationship and where you are now."
For some widowers, housing looms as another major decision. Ten months after Frank Crossley's wife, Elaine, died after 46 years of marriage, he sold their house in California and moved to Framingham, Mass. He and his wife had agreed that when one of them died, the other would relocate near their daughter, "so she wouldn't have to worry from 3,000 miles away." She now lives in an apartment in his house.
"If you move after the death of a spouse, it's an even greater adjustment," says Mr. Crossley, a retired engineer. "You have to adjust to a new place, find your way around, and meet new people."
Crossley has joined a church and has made other friends through his daughter. He also enjoys museums and plays. Long before retirement or widowhood, he says, "You must develop interests that are personal to you outside of your work. That will provide you with continuity when your spouse dies."
Notaro encourages volunteer activities. She notes that many churches have over-50 clubs, and community colleges offer continuing education courses.
Extensive volunteering and church involvement are common among the widowers Moore and Stratton studied. Volunteering often is an extension of work roles. A retired accountant might keep the books for his church. A plumber might run the repair shop at a retirement center.
Shapiro sums up his advice this way: "Keep busy." Mr. Laughlin agrees. Widowers, he says, "have to be involved with people and associate with people."
Even small acts can make a difference.
Silverman tells of one widower who had been accustomed to reviewing the day's events every evening with his wife. In her absence, he now keeps a diary, which he finds helpful.
Whatever a widower's activities, experts say that most men get their greatest support from their families. "Most are very grateful for their children and grandchildren," says Stratton.
Yet professionals caution that children must strike a balance between helping a parent and encouraging independence. Some widowers complain because their children are not attentive enough, Notaro says. In other cases, children "smother them and do everything for them, and that's not good either."
Whatever a widower's circumstances, Crossley offers an encouraging perspective. "You don't forget, and you have moments of sadness," he says. "But largely, the pain goes away. In time, you'll be reminded of occasions that were happy, perhaps by seeing a photograph, and you'll laugh or smile, and you'll relive that pleasure."
Widower information AARP Grief and Loss Progams 601 E St., NW Washington, DC 20049 202-434-2260 www.aarp.org/griefandloss e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Programs include a Widowed Persons Service for newly widowed men and women of all ages. Theos Foundation 322 Boulevard of the Allies, Suite 105 Pittsburgh, PA 15222 724-935-7023