Dissertation Abstracts

Elder women between marriage and widowhood: An abeyance of marriage.

Author: Peer, Dana , peered@netvision.net.il
Department: Gerontology
University: University of Haifa, Israel
Supervisor: Prof. Ariela Lowenstein
Year of completion: 2014
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: "married widowhood" , elder women , nursing homes , continuity and disengagement
Areas of Research: Women in Society , Family Research , Health


This study focused on the lived experience of elder women in Israel, who were married widows, i.e. women whose spouse of many years had moved to a nursing home while they continued to reside in the community. Only women were studied in light of men's tendency to marry women who are younger than them, and due to differences in life expectancy between women and men, the number of women who are married widows is significantly higher.
A phenomenological frame of reference was chosen in order to understand the experience of the community-dwelling wife in this new and unexpected situation: seemingly the marriage continues, but not in the classic sense, that was familiar for many years. Twenty-eight semi-structured interviews were conducted with Hebrew speaking women over 65, who lived in the community while their husbands of over thirty years lived in nursing homes. Data analysis was in the tradition of grounded theory.
The central finding was that married widows experienced processes of continuing and disengaging from their husband and their past. These processes existed simultaneously and were conflictual, thus creating a situation in which the community-dwelling wife's marriage was in a state of abeyance; a state of in-between. These processes aligned on three axis: emotional, social and behavioral. Along each axis the wife experienced both continuing and disengaging. The study model showed that women in this life situation were pulled towards two opposite extremes, and thus found themselves stuck and unable to forge ahead, creating a dilemma regarding their marital identity and personal status.
Thus far, continuity and disengagement theories were considered to be encompassing theories in the field of Gerontology. In light of the results of this study, it was suggested re-conceptualization of disengagement as a unified global process in the life of the elderly. This would also allow for including disengagement not only from social relations, but also from in or from other aspects of life, for example disengaging from objects or past habits.
One of the recommendations of this study is that health care professionals familiarize themselves with ambiguous loss, which refers to situations in which a person is present in the physical sense, while being absent in the psychological sense. People experiencing ambiguous loss are in need of much support, and broadening health care professionals' knowledge about this issue will enable them to be more empathic of women in this life situation. It may assist in developing a more tolerant attitude among nursing home staff toward these women, unlike today's common attitude of them being a nuisance to staff.
Since the study was conducted in the tradition of qualitative research, the sample is small, and not applicable for generalizations. It also focused on community-dwelling wives, and purposefully did not include men in such a life situation, for reasons mentioned earlier. It is reasonable to assume that the inclusion of men in the study sample would have raised issues pertaining to gender, and were averted in this study.

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