When Boomers Become Widowers: How to Move On

“The Boomer” is a column written for adults nearing retirement age and those already in their “golden years.” It will also promote reader interaction by posting e-mail responses and answering reader questions. E-mail your questions or topic ideas to thefoxboomer@gmail.com.

Losing a spouse is one of the most tragic experiences boomers will go through; forcing them to live out their golden years unexpectedly solo.

I can't imagine my life without my wife of 37 years, but one of us will die before the other, and we know the importance of planning both financially and emotionally for the unfortunate event.

Statistically speaking, female boomers are more likely to outlive their husbands, but male boomers need to be prepared for the death of their wife, and they face a unique set of challenges when they become widowers.

I reached out to Deborah Carr,a professor of sociology and Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers. She offered the following advice for male baby boomers who suddenly find themselves widowers. Here is what Deborah had to say:

Boomer: When male boomers suddenly find themselves widowers, what unique positions will they be in, and what obstacles might they face?

Carr: Widowers will be in a very unique position simply based on statistics. If you look at the baby boomer generation, about 10%-15% of women are widows, but only about 3%-5% of men have lost a spouse-- so they are going to be unique just in terms of numbers.

Because of this small percentage, people might not know how to treat widowers. People sometimes expect men to grieve the same way women do by crying or talking it out—but not all men are comfortable with that. Oftentimes, they feel compelled to keep going to work and to put on a stoic face; they may look like they are not grieving properly.

Also, many men who are baby boomers are still of working age, so even though they need to deal with their grief and with settling the estate, many of them still need to continue working for income, especially those whose wife didn’t work. They have this dual obligation: going to work and taking the time to grieve.

Boomer: What financial and life tips would you give to a widower?

Carr: I think one of the most important things they can do is to stay engaged and retain social relationships, whether it is with friends, neighbors or children. Women are known as the kin keepers, and men often let their social relationships lapse because they give that responsibility to their wives.

Widowers also need to evaluate their financial future, and plan that they may live for a long time and should allocate savings accordingly. Widowers also need to alter legal and other documents to recognize that they no longer have a living spouse. Go back and revisit your will and trusts and make sure that the new allocations take into consideration the fact that the wife is no longer the beneficiary. Most older adults have a living will that states their health-care preferences and they usually have a health- care proxy who makes decisions for them, and that person is usually their spouse. Men really need to revisit those documents and update them to reflect their new family situation.

Boomer: How can widowers learn to cope with the sudden death of their spouse?

Carr: They shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. There is no timeline for how quickly one should be recovered, and there really is no one right way to grieve. Men should first recognize they don't have to grieve in any particular way, and do what works best for them.

They need to reach out to family members, friends and neighbors for emotional and social support. Men also really need to take care of their own health. There are studies that say widowers die of a broken heart. Often, it is not that they are dying of a broken heart, but that they are not taking good care of themselves. If their wives were the one who made the meals, laid their pills out every morning and reminded them to exercise, for many men their health behaviors really diminish after their wife dies. Men should focus on their diet, exercise, sleeping regularly and keeping up with medications. If they don't have their wife around to remind them, maybe use alarms, or Post-It notes or have your children call to give regular reminders.

Boomer: Losing a spouse is one of the most stressful events a person can experience. How can a widower best maintain their physical and psychological health ?

Carr: No matter how grief-stricken, a man should recognize the fact that if his wife was still alive, she would want him to be as happy and healthy as possible. For psychological health, reaching out to others is important, but they also need to take the time to grieve in a manner that works for them.

Grieving doesn’t have to be about talking about his feelings: some channel efforts into repairing the house or cleaning up his wife’s possessions.

Another thing that comes to mind is don't date too quickly. Sometimes men throw themselves into dating very quickly—and some of it is because the numbers work in their advantage. There are probably two women per every one man in the boomer age group, and there is the stereotype of the “casserole brigade--” after a woman dies, all of the women in the neighborhood bring the widower casseroles.

It is important that men don’t enter new relationships too quickly because they still need to grieve. There is no way they can love someone new if they are still in love with their wife. One final point related to that is sometimes men feel the best way to move on is to forget about the wife by putting away pictures and not discussing her. That is not very adaptive. Just because the wife is no longer around, that doesn't mean he cannot keep her memory alive by going to concerts that she would have liked, keeping photos around and keeping memories around. Memories of the wife will not necessarily make a man sad—it is often very protective and healing.

Boomer: If a boomer’s wife is diagnosed with a terminal illness, how can the couple cope?  

Carr: I think there are two big things: One is to take that time and prepare for the future, and the other is to do what one can, but to recognize ones limit.

A chronic illness is a tragic, awful thing, but the positive of it is that it really does give the couple time to prepare for the death. It gives them time to prepare emotionally so the couple can talk about the dying process, and discuss any unfinished business. The wife can teach the man all of those things he needs to know to take care of himself, like recipes, phone numbers and other practical lessons. .

Men with a terminally-ill wife need to recognize their limits. A lot of men (and women) think that they can--and should--do anything to care for that dying spouse, but often some of the care giving that happens at home is very difficult. Administering a morphine drip or other medication or doing heavy physical lifting is hard, and men should only do what they are comfortable with, and call in a service for the rest. There are visiting nurses or hospice care. Recognizing the need for additional help and reaching out is not a sign of weakness--it is actually a sign of strength to recognize what one can and cannot do when they are engaged in that care-giving period.

The death of a spouse, especially for men is a tough period because men often are not the one left behind so they don’t have a road map to follow. They often don't have peers who are widowed so they feel as if they are going it alone which can be very hard.

E-mail your questions to thefoxboomer@gmail.com.