2016-10-07 13:11:05
 The New Old Age: The Gray Gender Gap: Older Women Are Likelier to Go It Alone

Every few years, a group of federal agencies publishes a raft of data on every conceivable subject affecting older people. Housing. Employment. Leisure.

The numbers that jumped out at me from the latest report, called Older Americans 2016, concerned a more intimate matter: gender differences in marital status. To be blunt, they’re enormous, with consequences beyond the purely personal.

At every age, the report shows, older men are far more likely to be married than older women.

About three-quarters of men ages 65 to 74 are married, compared with 58 percent of women in that age group. More surprisingly, the proportion of men who are married at 75 to 84 doesn’t decline; among women, it drops to 42 percent.

Even among men over 85, nearly 60 percent are married. By that point, only 17 percent of women are.

Life expectancy explains only part of this gap, said Deborah Carr, a sociologist at Rutgers University who has studied marriage and widowhood.

Yes, women tend to live longer and to marry men older than themselves, so they’re more likely to be widowed.

The other factor, though, is that “men are much more likely to remarry than women,” Dr. Carr said. With 2.55 women for every man among unmarried people over age 65, and 3.27 unmarried women for every unmarried man over 85, “a man who wants to remarry has a very large pool.”

At older ages, these differences can have significant repercussions.

Consider living arrangements. Among people over 75, the report points out, 23 percent of men live alone. For women, the figure is twice as high.

Healthy, solvent people can flourish on their own, of course. Take my artist friend Frieda Kasden, in Rockville, Md. Elegant (and still blonde) at 89, Frieda has been widowed twice and had significant relationships since, but remains happily single.

“Men don’t do well alone,” she told me. “Women thrive. They go to shows, they travel, they play cards.”

Well, Frieda thrives. She has stopped driving, but knows all her Uber drivers by name. Women struggling with financial burdens or social isolation, on the other hand, might benefit from couplehood.

And many older unmarried women do face economic difficulties.

“Women take more of a hit financially from widowhood and divorce,” said Deborah Umberson, director of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

How much of a hit? Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, has calculated poverty rates based on the federal Current Population Survey. Her findings: About 8 percent of married older adults are poor or “near poor.” Among unmarried men, the percentage rises to about 20 percent. For unmarried women, it’s 27 percent.

Research has long demonstrated a health benefit from marriage, too. “Divorce and widowhood are terrible for your health,” Dr. Umberson said.

Older men may be hardest hit, she said, because “women are the health experts within families,” the ones who arrange doctor’s appointments and monitor medications and diets. “When men lose that, they suffer the health consequences.”

But older women suffer, too. “Economic hardship is bad for your health,” Dr. Umberson said — and, again, unmarried women take the brunt of that.

I’d always assumed that the disproportionately female population of nursing homes resulted from longevity. But maybe women fill nursing homes not only because they’re ailing and need care, but also because they’re more apt to be single.

Unmarried Alzheimer’s patients, for instance, enter nursing homes significantly sooner than married ones, according to a study led by Susan Miller, a gerontologist and epidemiologist at Brown University.

Gail Schwartz, for example, spent five grueling years ensuring that her husband David, who had vascular dementia, could live and then die at home in Chevy Chase, Md.

“He’d be more comfortable and calm with familiar objects and people around,” she reasoned. “It was something I wanted and planned to do, something friends had done for their husbands.”

She served as his solo caregiver at first, then hired aides to help. And she succeeded in avoiding a nursing home: Mr. Schwartz was 85 when he died at home in July 2015.

Ms. Schwartz, 79, still recovering from the loss, has returned to her volunteering, her swimming and walking, her book group. Buttressed by family and friends, she’s likely to do well on her own.

But she knows that if she needs caregiving, there’s no one at home to do for her what she did for her husband.

Lest this picture seem entirely bleak, let me point out that social scientists have also documented ways in which many older women flower after widowhood and grief. In Dr. Carr’s study of older Detroit residents, for example, the women most emotionally dependent on their husbands while married showed the highest levels of self-esteem in widowhood.

“They had to learn new skills,” Dr. Carr said. “Within about a year, you see boosts in things like personal growth.”

We know, too, that many marriages aren’t idyllic and that marital strain itself takes a toll on older people’s health. Moreover, older women have a not-so-secret weapon: stronger social ties. Those kaffeeklatsches, book groups and friendships pay off.

“Women have more close, confiding relationships, and they’re excellent for your health, mentally and physically,” Dr. Umberson said. “Women also tend to be closer to their adult children.”

Cohort changes may eventually torpedo a lot of these gender and marital differences. The divorce rate among those over 50, known as “gray divorce,” has doubled since 1990, for instance. Since the divorced are more likely to remarry or cohabit than widows or widowers, we could see a lower percentage of older adults living alone in coming years.

A host of other sociocultural changes, from less stigma about divorce to more women in the work force, could also play out as boomers and their children age.

“We’ve seen tectonic shifts in health care, in beliefs about what constitutes family,” said John Cagle, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, who has studied marital status in older adults. “It is in flux.”

He points out that race and ethnicity also play significant roles. Older African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to face financial burdens regardless of marital status, for instance.

My friend Frieda is among those with no interest in partnering again. “I’m too old to be making someone’s dinner every night,” she told me, laughing. She’d rather paint.

Gail Schwartz, not ready to date but finding her empty house lonely, thinks “it would be wonderful, at some point, to have a partner to share my life.”

But she’s realistic about being an unmarried woman at almost 80 who may one day need the kind of help she’s more accustomed to providing.

“I’ve talked to my kids about it,” she said. “I can’t expect them to take me in. They have lives of their own, children of their own.”

If she needs hands-on care, she told her three daughters, they should find her a pleasant care facility, and visit. “I gave them permission,” she said. “I wanted them to know that that’s what I’d want them to do.”