From married woman to independent widow

September 12, 2002

Women who are widowed in later life undergo a change in identity that can turn out be very positive in terms of personal growth, says new research that will be presented to the British Society of Gerontology conference in Birmingham from September 12-14.

The paper is one of several being given by researchers in the 'Growing Older' Research Programme funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC).

There are more than 2.5 million widowed women aged 65 and over in Britain (and half a million men). The change undergone by older women who are widowed is characterised by three stages: the bonds with the former status of married women which continue; the passage of time; and finally personal growth.

The researchers interviewed women between 55 and 95 years of age who had been widowed for varying periods. They found most widows reported a deep sense of loss following the deaths of their husbands which they often described in terms of the loss of limbs. Most women saw their identity, in part, as a wife, part of a couple or a family.

The transition towards a 'woman alone' is marked partly by the disposal of important possessions of the husband although most keep something like a dressing gown or a watch. Over time, personal growth brings a new sense of confidence and self-sufficiency. Women join new clubs, take up new hobbies, and start voluntary work. One woman, who had never travelled on her own, had been all over the world since her husband died. "I go for a walk and I think, why should I be cleaning?" said another woman.

The researchers emphasise that the identity of most widowed women, even after years of widowhood, is still wrapped up with that of a married woman. This is a consequence of the continuing bond with the deceased, the importance of having been married, and the status of marriage in Western society. But they conclude: "what we believe happens is that their personal identity has grown to encompass that of a woman alone".
Contact: Kate Bennett, Department of Psychology, University of Liverpool 151-794-2957
Or Lesley Lilley or Iain Stewart, ESRC, telephone 179-341-3119/41-3032.NOTES TO EDITORS

1. Another paper, by Sheila Peace, Leonie Kellaher and Caroline Holland, concerns the environment in which older people live - the dwelling place and the wider location in which it is situated - and its role in active ageing. They found that the place, ranging from a small room in residential care to a large farmhouse, was very much part of 'active ageing', people taking steps to deal with changes due to ageing in ways that allowed them to keep control of their lives in ways that were familiar to them. This could be staying on in the present home for as long as possible or moving into sheltered accommodation. The perception of comfort was very important in making the decision about whether, and when, to move into sheltered housing.
2. The research was conducted in three areas: Haringey in London, Bedford, and various villages and small towns in Northamptonshire.
3. Other 'Growing Older' papers include: The impact of marital history on social networks of older men without partners; Ethnic differences in the meaning and experience of growing older; Quality of Life and Real World Cognitive Functioning in Older Adults; Older Women's lives and Voices: participation and policy in Sheffield.
4. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £53 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences, thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is
5. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at

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