Coping in Widowhood: Positive Support from Children Is Key

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Coping in Widowhood: Positive Support from Children Is Key


2006 ASA Graduate Student Reseorch Award

Past research has suggested that older adults who have considerable social support fare better than those with little involvement by children, friends and other relatives. However, a new study suggests that who renders support and whether it is positive or negative can make a significant difference in the psychological wellbeing of widowed people. This finding was central to a University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, study, which won the 2006 American Society on Aging Graduate Student Research Award.

The paper, titled "Effect of Change in Social Support on Older Adults' Psychological Adjustment to Widowhood," by Jung-Hwa Ha, a doctoral student in social work and sociology, was honored at ASA's 2006 Joint Conference in Anaheim in March.

FIRST LONGITUDINAL STUDY

To explore the relationship between stress, coping and social support following the death of a spouse, Ha conducted the first analysis of longitudinal data following a sample of older married couples before the death of a spouse and at six and 18 months following the person's death. Ha's review of the research literature showed that previous studies had re lied on cross-sectional data that did not reflect the impact of social support over time. Most significantly, she found that the social support of adult children had a deeper effect than that of friends and relatives in the months following the death of a spouse.

Ha used data from the Changing Lives of Older Couples (CLOC) study of more than 750 married couples drawn from the Detroit Standardized Metropolitan Statistical Area. To be enrolled in the study, married couples had to be community dwelling, include a husband of at least age 65 and be capable of sitting through a two-hour baseline interview. The CLOC researchers conducted their initial interviews of participants in 1987 and 1988, and monitored spousal loss by tracking newspaper obituaries, Michigan state death records and the National Death Index. The research team then interviewed surviving spouses willing and able to participate six and 18 months after their partner's death. Ha's study analyzed responses from 150 participants who had at least one living child.

Ha determined that those who lost a spouse and experienced an increase in or maintained high support from their children between baseline (pre-loss) and the 6-month follow-up "reported significantly lower depression at the 18-month follow-up compared to those who had low support both prior to and six months after spousal loss." However, surviving spouses who maintained high levels of support from friends and other relatives reported higher levels of depression after 18 months. Ha speculated that friends and relatives may provide greater care only when a widowed individual is in greater distress or not adjusting well. Also, she surmised, the exceptional attention of friends and relatives might deepen a widowed person's depression. "Although these people's support is provided with an intention to help widowed persons, interactions with married couples or deceased spouse's friends may exacerbate bereaved spouses' feelings of loss and thus increase depression," she wrote.

An unexpected finding was that although an increase or no change in positive support from adult children coincided with lower rates of depression, elders who received the same levels of positive support experienced greater psychological benefits than those whose children elevated their level of support.

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