When Jane Austin, a retired schoolteacher from Rockford, Ill., suddenly became a widow at age 69, her older brother called from Florida to warn her about “all those old guys who are looking for a nurse . . . or an insurance settlement.”
The warning wasn’t necessary. One husband had been enough, thank you very much. After nearly 47 years of marriage, Ms. Austin knew she would miss her husband’s company, but like many widows today, she had plans for the future — travel and a new part-time career as a school curriculum consultant — none of which involved managing another man’s domestic life.
That women like Ms. Austin aren’t interested in remarrying is likely to be unwelcome news for widowers who assume that the storied “casserole brigade” will always line up on their doorsteps. 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.
Q. Rabbi, when do I take my casserole to the widower — before Shiva [the period of mourning] or after Shiva?
A. Before Shiva is too soon. After Shiva is too late; he’ll already be taken.
The jokes may continue, but loved-starved widows, if they ever really existed outside men’s imaginations, have gone the way of June Cleaver. Women like Ms. Austin see themselves as part of a new generation of widows who openly, and sometimes gleefully, admit they like being liberated from their roles as wives and homemakers. While they may grieve over the deaths of beloved spouses and while some will never recover from their losses, the vast majority of older widows, studies show, accept and even revel in their roles as single women. They keep in close contact with their children and other family members, but they also go out to dinner, organize poetry soirées and plan travel adventures with other women, often making use of social networks developed during years of childrearing and community volunteering.
The same cannot be said of men who lose their wives. 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.
“For many white men, old age is the first time that they are minorities,” Henry Alford, author of “How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People,” wrote in an e-mail. “It can be a double whammy for them: not only are they prey to declining physical health, but they now also are experiencing a loss of status, which can beget depression and sometimes suicide.”
Older men may be reluctant to talk about these feelings, but their children often sense what’s happening. Georgia Dunn’s father and father-in-law have both lost their wives. “My dad has rekindled a friendship with his high school sweetheart, and I think he would remarry her in an instant, but she doesn’t seem all that interested,” said Ms. Dunn, 57, a retired school teacher in Mount Lebanon, Ohio. “My husband’s father is trying to establish a good old boys’ network and has some success . . . but he is really lost and lonely.”
Statistics paint a grim picture of the male population over the age of 65. While men seem to start out with all the advantages — greater financial security, fewer chronic health illness and less frequent complaints of depression — elderly men, especially those who are divorced or widowed, end up with fewer friends, reduced involvement in their communities and less contact with their families.
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.
Detecting emotional problems in elderly men before it is too late can be a serious challenge for family caregivers and even physicians. Men of Ward Cleaver’s generation don’t usually think of themselves as having emotional problems and are less likely to seek treatment for them. What makes matters harder for caregivers is that unspoken symptoms of depression are not always the same in men and women. Women who are depressed tend to feel sad, worthless and guilty, whereas men often become irritable and hostile, or complain of fatigue, sleeplessness or physical symptoms often assumed to be ordinary signs of aging.
Men and women also appear to have different mechanisms for coping with bereavement, so that what is normal grief for one may be a sign of emotional instability in the other. In one study, women who said they were comfortable being alone were significantly more likely to be coping with their grief than men who made similar remarks.
Looking back on her 83-year-old brother’s warning about predatory men, Ms. Austin now sees it less a cautionary tale for lonely widows and more an “indictment from an old man regarding other old men.”
“Most of the men I know who are widowed are not comfortable in their own homes alone,” Ms. Austin said. Either they seek replacement wives as housekeepers and social directors, or they end up “in a chair watching CNN and the cooking channels . . . waiting for the end.”