Enjoying life after death

By: Joseph P. Shapiro
US News, September 11, 2000

The sun is rising over tall saguaro cactus, turning the sky an electric turquoise and the clouds into ribbons of coral. At a campsite in Arizona's Sonoran Desert, Geri Oster and her friends are up early to admire the sunrise. It's a point of pride that the women camped here, most of them widows, don't park their motor homes in some cushy RV park with pristine showers, sparkling swimming pools, and ample electricity. Instead they are "boondocking," camped in a state facility with no hookups.

On a desert walk, Oster recounts her story, how her husband and soul mate of 43 years went to the hospital for what was supposed to be simple surgery and suddenly, unexpectedly, Oster, at age 65, was a widow. What followed next was standard: the wounding grief and constant worry; friends who stopped calling; even trouble getting their shared credit card switched to her name. But then came the surprises: the close friendships with other widows, the freedom of being on her own, and, best of all, a heady sense of competence and independence. Before, Oster never would have driven across the West in a 31-foot-long recreational vehicle–with just Annie, a Toto-size terrier for company in the passenger seat. But here she is, less than two years after her husband's death, camping with three dozen members of a national singles club for older RVers. They call themselves "Loners of America." And if you think loners is an odd word to claim with pride, then Oster and her friends would say you don't understand much about widowhood today.

The numbers. Widowhood has become a new stage of an older woman's life. Almost half of women over age 65 are widows, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly 700,000 women lose their husbands each year and will be widows for an average of 14 years. Men who lose a spouse are several times more likely to remarry–in part because it is socially acceptable for them to choose younger mates. But only 8 percent of widows 55 to 64 remarry, and once they pass the 65 mark only 2 percent do. Meanwhile, women outlive men by nearly six years, but tend to marry men several years older. The result: There are 11 million widows to 2.6 million widowers, a ratio of 4.3 to 1. Within 25 years, some demographers predict, the gap could widen to 10 to 1.

Beyond the numbers, however, is another trend: Widows have led the reinvention of old age. It is widows who have set the example for how to remain active and stay involved–despite the crushing losses that come with old age. "Widowhood changes the very essence of your life," says researcher Phyllis Silverman of the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. "When you no longer can live as a wife, then you have to figure out who you are as a woman."

For much of history, those choices have been limiting or grim. Often, an older woman alone was viewed as something unnatural–even dangerous. In colonial New England, widows were at particular risk of being accused of being witches–their inheritances gave them an uncommon degree of independence. Literature depicts the demonic crones of fairy tales and libidinous hags like Chaucer's five-times-married Wife of Bath. Even less than a century ago, many women were considered to reach a useless old age at menopause, while men were considered vigorous for another couple of decades until they quit work (and until the rise of pensions a half century ago they often worked until they died). A widow's only productive role? Grandmother. 

But that's changing. "It's what these ladies do after the mourning is over that's interesting," says Ken Dychtwald, author of Age Power. "There's been a creation of elder women tribes. Instead of the traditional husband and wife, you see three and four widows traveling together, going together to restaurants and movies, becoming caretakers of each other, sharing houses and apartments. It's a whole new social phenomenon." Sheer numbers bring widows together. But these tribes form around the shared sense of loss that often only other widows understand.

Although that grief may never completely disappear, loneliness eventually evolves into something widows describe as "solitude, something with a peacefulness to it," according to Barbara Barer, a University of California–San Francisco researcher who has studied women over age 85. Numerous studies have found that two years after losing a spouse, widows show no more likelihood of being depressed than other women their age. Further, at least a third of widows say they discovered new strengths and talents. 

By contrast, elderly white widowers have the nation's highest suicide rates. One reason is that many widowed men are frail, and the spouse they've lost was also their caregiver. More important, elderly women–in contrast to men–do a better job at building a strong social network of family and friends. One of the nation's first support groups was a widow-to-widow program started by some Boston women in 1967. Today, there are thousands of these groups, where women comb obituaries or take calls from funeral directors to reach out to new widows. When Joyce Felberg became a widow at 41, she envied the way older women turned to their many widowed peers for support. "My own peers sort of shunned me," says Felberg, who works as a school nurse. They were horrified when she came home after her husband's funeral and washed his clothes. But the older widows who befriended her understood that this seemingly futile gesture was a normal part of grief, as was keeping some of her husband's shirts and coats–which today, 15 years later, still hang in a closet.

A new life. It was a given that Shigeko Uno and her husband, Chick–as the eldest children of large Japanese-American families–would open their home to her widowed mother and his widowed father. Indeed, upon leaving a World War II internment camp, the couple took their widowed parents with them–along with their children–as they moved to Chicago, to Boston, and then back to Seattle in search of jobs. She considered it a duty, and not a burden. (Caregiving turned to matchmaking: Her mother and father-in-law later married.) 

Now a widow herself, Uno has no such expectations of her own five, busy children. Since she doesn't drive, she moved to an apartment within walking distance of her favorite stores so she won't have to rely on others. Where once it was common for a widow to live with an adult child–thus the growth of "mother-in-law apartments"–most now say they prefer being on their own or that they don't want to "burden" their family. Today, about 70 percent of widows over the age of 65 live by themselves, far more than the 44 percent who lived alone as recently as 1965. 

At the same time, the sharp rise in grandparents rearing children–some 1.5 million are the primary caretakers for their grandchildren–has kept widows in contact with younger generations. Mildred Horn was a 52-year-old widow when her daughter Hetty died in a hit-and-run accident, leaving two surviving pre-schoolers. Horn raised them and then started Grandparents Reaching Out, a volunteer group that provides counseling and legal support to some 1,000 other New York grandparents rearing children. Says Horn, now 73, of the widows in her group: "You'll find them out at the soccer fields and the baseball fields. They are all over the place."

Still, there remain great perils: For one, says University of Wisconsin economist Karen Holden, no other life event creates a more dramatic change in economic status than becoming a widow. Two fifths of widows fall into poverty within five years of their husbands' deaths. Most never escape. The loss of a husband's pension income and employer-sponsored health care, along with a reduction by about 40 percent in Social Security income, are too much to overcome. 

Money matters. But other widows find themselves suddenly wealthy, especially if the couple carried large insurance policies or accumulated sizable savings. They and other widows with money can make the most of their golden years. During John McCain's presidential campaign, his widowed mother, Roberta McCain, was on the road, too: the Silk Road to Samarkand, driving in a red BMW with her twin sister, Rowena. The two 88-year-olds spend much of their time on the road, including this last adventure not only to Uzbekistan but to Kazakhstan, India, Tasmania, Greece, and New Zealand (although Rowena left after the Central Asian leg of the journey because "I had to get back to do my taxes"). There are widows traveling the world, visiting expensive spas, moving into luxurious retirement communities, and giving generously to charities. Of course, the biggest beneficiaries of this wealth will be their children: The baby boom generation is expected to receive history's biggest transfer of inheritance, more than $10 trillion. And as more women work and accumulate savings of their own, the number of well-off widows is expected to grow.

But the Loners of America–the vast majority of whom are women–aren't pursuing the jet-set lifestyle. Marie Wright, camped out in the Sonoran Desert, outlines the rules of the road: "We very seldom have an affair. Every once in a while, we have a marriage." But members who do marry are kicked out of the club. As the group explained in a newsletter: "Loners of America is not a singles club to help members find a mate, or a matchmaking service." And "hanky panky" gets a member kicked out of the club. Even when romance does develop, LOA rules require a widow and widower to come to camp-outs–and then to stay–in separate RVs.

Wilma Pryor and Hap Lewis are one such rare couple. Wilma lovingly cared for her late husband, Bob, through 10 years of Alzheimer's disease. One night, four years ago around a campfire, the LOA widows were joking about what it would take to get them to ever remarry. "He's got to have money, he's got to have a hot tub, and he's got to like Rush Limbaugh," said Pryor. And then turning to Lewis, the tall, handsome former real-estate developer she'd had an eye on, she asked, "You do have rest-home insurance, don't you?"

They've been together ever since. But will they marry? Sitting next to Lewis, Pryor frowns. "I don't think we're compatible enough," she says. "He's a sweetheart, and he's very kind and considerate. But his hearing, it's a problem." She's sociable, she explains. She loves to go to shows, movies, and high school basketball games. But his loss of hearing has made Lewis a homebody.

It's often assumed, notes University of Florida sociologist Felix Berardo, that widows are desperate to remarry, or even worse, are on the lookout to steal another woman's husband. It's one of the reasons married friends often shy away. In fact, older widows rarely take new husbands. Remarriage is tricky territory. Some women so sanctify their dead husbands that no other man can measure up. Or they see remarriage, in Berardo's phrase, as "committing psychological bigamy." Their adult children may fear a new marriage will deprive them of an inheritance. Most of all, men complicate a widow's freedom by demanding too much care. "Marriage is a much better deal for men," says Berardo, who studies widowhood. "The women are figuring that out."

Marie Wright certainly seems to have cottoned on already. She drives a clothes-strewn 27-foot RV with the words "Come In Sit Down Shut Up Hang On" stenciled over the windshield. She sleeps with a 38-caliber pistol by her bed. "No man would ever live this way," says the white-haired, soft-spoken 72-year-old Texan, a widow since 1991. "If it gets hot, I go up the mountain. If it gets cold, I come down. If I don't like the neighbors, I move. That's independence."

And it's an independence that seems primed to increase. The prosperity and health advances that Americans take for granted today are sure to change widowhood. Future widows will be better educated and wealthier and will benefit from medical breakthroughs. Men, too, will benefit and may start closing the life-expectancy gap. If so, not only will the widow's peak drop off, but remarriage–an unthinkable prospect for many elderly women today–may be more common, especially for a generation that has grown up accustomed to divorce and remarriage. 

Geri Oster thinks her three adult daughters–all with their own careers–will be far better equipped to deal with the changes of aging. On the phone back home in Oregon, Nancy Oster-Courtney, 43, laughs at the thought of being more independent than her mother. "There's no way I would try driving that big RV," she says, noting that she and her younger sisters tried to persuade their mother to sell the motor home. "But my Mom is a very brave person." 
Baby boomers, says George Washington University gerontologist Gene Cohen, are "the first major population to have grown up with a positive image of aging." We can thank Oster and the current generation of widows, he argues, for calming many of our fears–and showing the possibilities for growth, discovery, and accomplishment in old age.