Elderly Solitary Survivors and Social Policy: the Case For Widows

Benny Barak, Baruch College - C.U.N.Y.
ABSTRACT - This paper examines social programs of the aged, their social support system, as well as the particular characteristics and problems of the widowed as a special elderly subpopulation. The conclusion is that to aid aged widows new social policies, which require special research effort are to be developed outside the formal federal framework.
[ to cite ]:
Benny Barak (1982) ,"Elderly Solitary Survivors and Social Policy: the Case For Widows", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 27-30.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 27-30


Benny Barak, Baruch College - C.U.N.Y.


This paper examines social programs of the aged, their social support system, as well as the particular characteristics and problems of the widowed as a special elderly subpopulation. The conclusion is that to aid aged widows new social policies, which require special research effort are to be developed outside the formal federal framework.


The essence of present-day public policies towards the elderly can be summarized as follows: (1) the governmental focus on programs in behalf of the aged has risen dramatically over the last two decades, (2) the economic status the aged population in general has improved significantly as a consequence of governmental old age policies, and (3 there are still many unmet needs among the elderly, especially among subpopulations such as widows.

Nearly one-quarter of the federal budget is devoted to the elderly and because of this federal effort large numbers older individuals are better off than in the past; yet, a considerable percentage of the population remains in poverty and in poor health (Hudson. 1980).

With the Reagan administration's inclination to limit if not halt the growth of federal social programs directed towards the elderly, the former ground rules of old age policy are changing. Social policy makers are facing an environment in which public expenditures have become unpopular even for the aged. Public policy research indicates that policy makers are more inclined to support and help the aged than any other social welfare constituents (Hudson, 1980), yet a continuation of the growth of public spending for the aged is not to be expected.

The change in direction of old age policies demands an alternative approach towards assisting the elderly, an approach which will not rely so heavily upon federal economic aid. This change also implies a greater need for research on how to improve the present support systems for the aged, which at present stress a formal organizational approach rather than informal support. Another consequence which bears investigation is the effect policy changes might have on the present aging-oriented organizations which presently consist of relatively well-off elderly who function as special old-age interest and lobbying groups i Washington with their activities and orientations shaped t a great extent by their membership bases and professional associations (Hudson, 1980). What is of special interest here is how these aging-oriented organizations are to react to a shift in public policy from a "body count" approach t an approach which stresses the "targeting of limited resources." Such a shift implies that resources will be directed especially towards the vulnerable subpopulations of the elderly (e.g., poor widows), which at present are not well represented in the old-age interest groups (Posman, 1980).

Little is known about the subpopulation of aged widows; ye the widows form one of the largest, poorest and neediest segments of the elderly population. In order to assist proper targeting of the limited resources mentioned above it is necessary to know more about them, especially concerning their needs and wants.

This paper will endeavor to discuss: (1) the major social programs for the elderly, (2) social support systems and their relevance to the aged, (3) the elderly solitary survivor population with particular attention given to widows and their specific wants and needs, and (4) recommendations.


The elderly enjoyed more policy legitimacy and more concern this century than did any other population group. They received support from political decision makers and the populace in the area of old age policy benefits. That these old age policy benefits show the concern of policy makers is exemplified in the whole range of public enactments ranging from basic Social Security benefits in the 1930's to the benefits provided in the sixties and seventies to the elderly (e.g., Medicare and Supplemental Security Income). These benefits were not only at the federal level but also at the state and local levels (e.g., property tax relief legislation and discount fares). The costs of Social Security programs alone is in excess of $120 billion in fiscal 1981 (Time, 1981).

An important component of the present status of many of these programs (especially Social Security) is that unlike other entitlement programs (e.g., school lunches), the older population, and those in their late "middle age" years, view these programs as a basic and sacred right. The most important formal social support programs for the aged are at Present:

1. Social Security, a program perceived as a form of retirement for the elderly. A major problem to the program is its cost (over $120 billion), which causes much of all federal receipts to be for Social Security, and over half the American population pays more to Social Security than to the Federal income tax (Monk, 1980). In 1979 6.2 million solitary survivors received social security payments (Muller, 1980), and it is self evident that the support provided by Social Security is of crucial importance to a great many widows. This is also clear from data indicating that many poor widows make use of the special provisions which enable them to receive social security benefits before age 65, although those benefits are then permanently at a lower level (Rogers, 1981).

2. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a minimum guaranteed income to the poorest among aged Americans. It is a program which is funded from general revenues, and in 1979 there were over 990,000 solitary survivors who received SSI benefits (Muller, 1980). A special problem associated with the program is that it is a form of welfare with attendant qualifying checkups by agencies.

3. Medicare is a program started in 1965 to help pay medical bills for the aged (65+). The program, mainly because of the abuse by the bureaucracy associated with it, is likely to feel the ax of the federal budget cutter. This notwithstanding its importance to the elderly; one seventh of the aged consider themselves to be in poor health (Hudson, 1980). It is an important facet of the present Medicare program that it starts at age 65 regardless of employment, and is therefore not an incentive to either stop or continue work.

4. Aid to Families with Dependent Children is a federal program that has changed tremendously over time. At its inception in 1935 it was intended for assistance to widows with children, yet today 80% of the beneficiaries are single parents whose mates have deserted them (Time, 1981). In 1936, 534 thousand people received a total of $21.3 million in payments, while in fiscal 1981 the Federal Government will pay out $7 billion to 11 million recipients (Time 1981). Widows in their fifties are among those who still benefit from this program, at least if they have dependent children

The cost of the above discussed programs and the large percentage of the federal budget devoted to them have brought about strong pressures for change and constraint. In 1981 a large part of political effort has been spent on attempts to modify and streamline programs, especially since the most important of all federal programs (Social Security) is in serious financial trouble.


Before discussing how changes in social policy might affect the social support system of the elderly, and how a social support system can provide assistance to the aged, it is necessary to first examine the notion of social support systems and its function.

A social support system can be defined as: "A pattern of continuous or intermittent ties and interchanges of mutual assistance that plays a significant role in maintaining the psychological, social, and physical integrity of the individual over time (Cantor, 1980, p. 133).

A social support system enables the aged to fulfill three social needs: (1) socialization, (2) carrying out the tasks of daily living, and (3) personal assistance during times of crisis (Cantor. 1980).

An older person interacts and has ties with a variety of subsystems in a social support system, this interaction (or interface) ranges from subsystems that are remote and peripheral (in terms of social distance) to those that are close to the daily life of an older individual; the most important subsystem from the point of view of the individual is the one closest to his/her daily life.

Cantor (1980) envisions social support subsystems to be perceived by the elderly according to the following hierarchy of importance:

I. Formal Peripheral Organizations: Political and economic entities which determine the basic entitlement, available to all older people, these affect their well-being in income maintenance, health, housing, safety, etc.

II. Formal Governmental and Voluntary Organizations: Agencies that carry out the economic and social policies by providing the actual services mandated under laws such as Social Security and Medicare.

III. Quasi-Formal Organizations: These organizations (or their representatives) perform a helping function with respect to the elderly in roles such as: shopkeeper,postman, building superintendent, and friendship delegations from churches. They resemble the informal support system, yet originate in and belong to formal organizations.

IV. Informal Support Systems: The significant others who are closest to the daily life of an older individual such as kin, friends, and neighbors with whom the elderly have the most frequent interaction and who compose the broad basis of the social support system in the United States.

The informal support network of family, friends, and neighbors is the best in most circumstances of need, an older person will turn to this network first and most frequently, only when this support is not available, are formal organizations turned to (Cantor, 1980). The belief in and reliance upon the informal system in no way negates the acceptance of the role of government and other formal organizations in providing economic, health support and other help (Cantor, 1980). To the older individual it is the mixture of informal (family, friends and neighbors) and formal societal services (e.g., Social Security and food-stamps) that constitute the social support system. In a successful social support system both the formal and informal subsystems combine to help strengthen an older person's sense of mastery of self and the environment.


Every day 5,000 Americans celebrate their 65th birthday, and this while 3,400 persons aged 65+ die in the course of a day, creating a net population increase of the 65+ age group of 1,600 a day or 600 thousand per year (Brotman, 1981) In the case of women aged 55 and over this growth is exemplified by the population increase for the 1970 decade; on census day 1980 there were 6.4 million more women 55+ than in 1970, an increase of more than 30% (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1981), in 1980 women 55+ formed 22.5% of the total resident female population of the United States, 12.27. in the case of women 65+ (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1981).

The change in the aging population is not only a matter of numbers, it also involves a different type of person joining the ranks of the aged. Members of each additional cohort becoming elderly are of higher socio-economic status and education, and enjoyed better health care during their early and middle years; they tend to be better able to provide for their retirement years because of maturing pension schemes (Hudson, 1980).

Solitary Survivors

In the 1980's the term solitary survivors can more appropriately be used to indicate those who survived to an old age and live by themselves, rather than the elderly who survived their spouse. In this paper the term "solitary survivors" therefore refers to aged unrelated individuals.

It is only recently that much attention has been devoted to single-adult households (Kotler, 1980; Wortzel, 1976). These single-adult households are almost automatically assumed to be chronologically young. Yet a very large proportion of aged Americans (especially women) are not married and live by themselves (see Table I). The data as provided by the Bureau of the Census (1980) is striking; 53% of women aged 55 and over, and 61% of women aged 65 and older are not married.

Another facet of life of the aged which is relatively unknown is that so few elderly persons live in institutions. Probably because of the attention given by the media to institutions such as nursing homes whenever the subject of the elderly comes up, the stereotype of an aged citizen is that of a frail individual living in an institution. In reality, only one in twenty among those over 65 live in institutions (Allen, 1981; Shanas, 1980), and the institutionalized population is counted separately by the Census Bureau. So, when the census count showed that on April 1st. 1980 17.8 million householders lived by themselves, and that 7.1 million of these householders (i.e., 9% of all households in the U.S. and 40% of all single-adult households) were aged 65 years and older, 'this count did not include the institutionalized population (Bureau of the Census. 1981).



The Elderly Widows

A large proportion of the female solitary survivors are widows. In 1979 more than 9.2 million women 55+ were widowed, this implies that one out of three women over 54 years old had suffered the loss of her spouse, and in the case of women 65+ 7.1 million (or 52: of that population) were widowed (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1980). Of this widow population aged 65 and over 5.8 million lived as householders (head of a household), with 4.7 million (67% of all widows 65+) living alone by themselves; the rest of the aged (65+) widows numbering 1.3 million were living with their families as non-householders (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1980).

Since women in the United States customarily marry men older than themselves (Matthews, 1979), and women tend to outlive men, there are many more widows than widowers; the ratio between widows and widowers aged 65+ is more than five to one, to be exact there were in 1979 526 widows per 100 widowers (U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1980).

Living Arrangements of Aged Widows

Two out of three widows 65+ elect to live by themselves, an option that became feasible as the result of rising levels of Social Security benefits and other pension programs, as well as the rise in incomes in general (Matthews, 1979). Most old people prefer to live near, but not with their offspring; they want to be close enough to see their family often (especially their grandchildren), but they also want to maintain their own households as long as possible and to do so the majority of the elderly live within ten minutes distance from their children (Shanas, 1980). Moreover aged parents (65+) who live alone are as likely to see their children (or at least one of them) during a typical week as are the aged who live in large households (Shanas, 1980). These data indicate that elderly widows living alone are not necessarily totally isolated from society. Such isolation might be more likely in the case of poor aged widows without children and fewer choice options in the selection of their domicile, yet even in those circumstances strong community support is often to be found (Cantor, 1980).

Nonetheless social isolation is likely to become a problem that will occur with greater frequency in the 1980's as a consequence of rising inflation which might force aging widows to seek help with housing from their relatives, and if their family is poor, they would have no other option but to become totally dependent upon society.

Economic Status of Aged Widows

Specific information about the economic status of widows can be found in a study conducted by Rogers (1981) for the Social Security Administration. Widows, unless they are disabled or still care for dependent children, are not eligible for benefits under the old-age, survivors, and disability insurance (OASDI) program until they reach age 60. Once they are 60 they are eligible for aged surviving spouse benefits on the basis of the earnings record of their deceased spouse. At age 62, if they have sufficient credits under their own earnings record, they also become eligible for retired worker benefits. If they decide to receive these benefits at such an early age, they can expect a reduction of 28.St at age 60, and a reduction of 20% at age 62 (Rogers, 1981). In Rogers' study many aged widows elected to do so, and 41% of the widows in her sample decided to receive their (OASDI) benefits at ages 60 or 61, 31% of the sample elected to receive benefits early at age 62-64. All those doing so, with the exception of recipients (75) of disabled worker benefits, incurred a permanent reduction in the benefits they would have received at age 65. At least 61% of the widows who had decided to receive social security payments before age 65 felt that their economic status had improved relative to the period prior to heir receipt of benefits, this notwithstanding the reduced benefit penalty (Rogers, 1981). The majority of the nonemployed widows in her sample elected to collect benefits early. To put the discussion of OASDI benefits in perspective it is worth noting that in May 1981 the average monthly benefit awarded to the widowed was a monthly payment of slightly over three hundred and two dollars (Social Security Bulletin, 1981).

Overall the economic status of aged widows (65+) is worse than that of other solitary individuals at that age range; in 1975 over 62% of unrelated persons living below poverty levels were widows (Muller, 1980).

Because the plight of the poor elderly such as widows has come to the attention of policy makers (Hudson, 1980), it is to be expected that they will be among the "targets of limited resources" in the new social policies that are likely to be developed in the 1980's.

Aged Widows and Their Problems

In order to investigate the wants and needs of widows relative to their social support systems, Lopata (1979) conducted extensive survey research in the early 1970's among the widow population of Metropolitan Chicago. She summarized her conclusions concerning these wants and needs in the form of a list of the problems they face as a consequence of widowhood. The sequence of these problems as listed below is Lopata's (1979):

A. Problems Common to Widows of All Ages:

1. Lack of opportunity to grieve.

2. The need for a return to traditional rituals (or the need for the development of new rituals) surrounding the death.

3. Lack of emotional supports after the official mourning period.

4. Bad advice from people who do not understand the widow's situation and who force decisions on her which she later regrets. The need is for action on the part of significant others which builds the widow's self-feelings (e.g., competence, self-confidence, importance).

5. Lack of supports for the children, whose need for knowledge and for grief is largely unrecognized.

6. Lack of companionship, alleviation of loneliness, lack of escorts.

7. Lack of self-help groups concerned with the solution of some of the above-mentioned problems.

8. Lack of job training resulting in poorly paying jobs.

9. Financial problems early in widowhood resulting in some long-range dysfunctional decisions.

B. Problems Peculiar to Older Widows:

1. Inability to earn an income and high probability of poverty.

2. Inadequate information about part-time jobs.

3. Ageism, or stereotyping of people by age.

4. Inadequate facilities in many communities for social contact with peers.

5. Fear of rejection, which causes less utilization of existing resources.

6. Sexual imbalance, making male companionship very rare.

7. Inadequate, often dangerous, housing - a barrier to social contact.

8. Lack of contact to prevent or handle emergencies.

9. If house-bound, lack of social contact, as well as lack of medical and dental care; and lack of adequate nutrition.

In addition to the above problems, of course, different lifestyles and circumstances (e.g., living in poverty) bring different needs and wants. The main problem is that many widows do not have sufficient contact with people who will listen to them, and try to help solve their needs as they define them and not as an observer defines these needs (Lopata, 1979).


Social policies towards the elderly are likely to change in the 1980's, these changes are likely to mean an end to the growth of federal economic aid to the aged. Probably the greatest potential for changes and growth can be expected in the informal and quasi-formal subsystems of the social support system of the elderly.

To enable social policy makers to succeed it is necessary to gain more knowledge and understanding about the interface of the aged with these social support subsystems. Special research attention needs to be given to widows, since so little is known about their problems beyond the works of Lopata (1979) and Matthews (1979).

An example of research of this nature would be the investigation of how to streamline the helping functions of quasi-formal support organizations. Here marketers could be of special assistance through the direction of research and development of products and services which could help widows to feel less isolated from their community and society. Research that also deals with social support systems, but which is more oriented towards the informal component, would be concerned with the development of services to help widows address specific problems such as the lack of self-help groups. Some services of this nature have already been developed; for example, the Widowed Persons Service (sponsored by three different organizations of the aged) provides a widow-to-widow program which arranges for a widow to contact another widowed person to provide empathy in the period following the husband's death. Another example of a new service would be the "reverse mortgage" program, which enables aged widows to be less economically dependent on Social Security and which allows these aged widows to utilize the value of their homes (of course only if they own their homes) to achieve economic independence and a sense of self-worth in the last years of their lives.

In concluding, it should be stressed that lack of attention to the special needs of aged subpopulations such as widows is the greatest stumbling block to efforts expended in aiding this population.


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