In contrast to earlier research which portrays older widows as a vulnerable, passive and homogenous group, Dr Tracy Collins’ study of women aged 62-90 years old found that the majority of them were practical, active and autonomous in the way they live their lives.
Although the death of a spouse is one of the most stressful life events that can be experienced, Dr Collins found that the experience of being an older widow in contemporary Britain has changed as personal communities and friendships have become more diverse and women seek new opportunities to be independent.
Some of the women were in fact too active and had taken on a burdensome number of commitments to family, friends and others. Initially a welcome distraction, roles such as caring for elderly parents and grandchildren and carrying out unpaid voluntary work became difficult to manage over time.
The research also found that the quality of personal relationships is more important than the size of a widow’s social network. While some widows appear to have the stable support network that can come with having a large family, the reality is that ongoing practical support is lacking.
The study therefore recommends that health and social care practitioners explore the deeper content of a widow’s relationships with family and friends, for example when planning discharges from hospitals, to ensure that the necessary support really exists.
Dr Collins of the School of Health Sciences said: “The old stereotype of widowhood is a lonely, isolated woman living out her twilight years without much stimulation or activity in her life. The majority of women I met were a far cry from this stereotype and have seized many of the opportunities that modern society has to offer.
“However, it is important not to make assumptions about a woman’s support network and it’s the quality - not the quantity - of relationships in her life that count.”
Dr Tracy Collins, Managing Transition: A Longitudinal Study of Personal Communities in Later Life Widowhood, 2011
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