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Demography Of The Widowed

There are more than 13.7 million widowed persons in the United States, over 11 million of these being women. (American Association of Retired Persons 2001) Female survivors have been outdistancing their male counterparts by a continually widening margin and now represent approximately 80 percent of the widowed population in the United States. In 1940 there were twice as many widows as widowers; by 1990 the ratio of widows to widowers had climbed to more than 4 to 1. This ratio is expected to widen in the future.

Several factors may explain the imbalanced gender ratio among the widowed. Women experience greater longevity than men. First, because their death rate is lower than men's, larger numbers of women survive into advanced years. Second, wives are generally younger than their husbands, a fact that increases their probability of surviving their spouses even without the differences in longevity. Third, among the widowed, remarriage rates are significantly lower for women than men. Therefore, many men leave widower status by wedding again, whereas many women do not, thereby adding to the surplus of female survivors.

Advances in medical technology, widespread sanitation and health programs, and improved living conditions have extended life expectancy. In the process, the probability of dying prior to midlife has greatly diminished. Consequently, widowhood has, for the most part, been postponed to the later stages of the life cycle. At the beginning of the twentieth century, about one in twenty-five persons was sixty-five years of age or older, as compared to one in nine at the end of the century. The gains in longevity have been more rapid for women than for men; hence, the growing proportion of elderly women in the population highlights the overall rates of widowhood. It has been estimated that about one-fourth of all married women in the United States will be widowed by age sixty-five, and that one-half of the remaining women will have lost their husbands by age seventy-five (Berardo 1992). Because there is little chance that the mortality differences between genders will be reversed anytime soon, the excess of women at the upper ages will continue to increase, and the older population will be comprised of a larger proportion of widows. Aware of these trends, researchers have focused their attention primarily on the conditions surrounding female survivors. Although comparative knowledge about the experiences and needs of males who have lost their spouses remains insufficient there are a few attempts to learn more about their experiences. (Blieszner 1993; Zick and Smith 1991; Lee et al. 2001)

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaOther Marriage & Family TopicsWidowhood - Demography Of The Widowed, Bereavement And Adaptation, Bereavement And Developmental Stages, Gender Differences, Social Support And Reintegration