According to a social research study, “in sickness and in health” doesn’t necessarily apply to couples over the age of 50. Analysing over 2,500 marriages and 20 years of data, Amelia Karraker and Kenzie Latham, researchers from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis respectively, discovered that “women are doubly vulnerable to marital dissolution in the face of illness”. Karraker explained: “[Women] are more likely to be widowed, and if they are the ones who become ill, they are more likely to get divorced.”
The study examined how serious physical illness, such as cancer, stroke, lung disease and heart problems, affected marriages in couples where at least one member was over 50 years of age. Over the period studied, 31% of marriages ended in divorce, however the results also revealed that the likelihood of divorce was higher when women developed serious health problems.
“Gender norms and social expectations about caregiving may make it more difficult for men to provide care to ill spouses,” Karraker continued, “And because of the imbalance in marriage markets, especially in older ages, divorced men have more choices among prospective partners than divorced women.
“We did not have information on who initiated divorce in this study. But it’s important to keep in mind that in most cases, it’s women who do so. So it could be that when women become ill and their husbands are not doing a very good job caring for them, they would rather that he just go and they rely on friends and family who will take care of them.”
Karraker suggested that increased availability of support services for people looking after a spouse with health problems “may reduce marital strain and prevent divorce at older ages.” She added that it is also important to acknowledge that there may be a significant correlation between illness in women and divorce rates in the over 50s, and that divorced women with health-related issues may require “additional care and services to prevent worsening health and increased health expenditures.”
Since the 1990s, divorce research from the Office of National Statistics has shown that despite a general downturn in the number of UK divorces, the rate of ‘silver splitters’ has remained on the rise. Reasons for an increased incidence of divorce in older couples may be due to a number of reasons, the most significant of which is longer life expectancy, enabling individuals to pursue new relationships with the prospect of a further 25 years or more ahead. Other factors, such as a more acceptable attitude to divorce and ‘empty nest syndrome’ may also apply, but in all cases it is important that couples over 50 take the time to secure their assets and pension during divorce to ensure they have the necessary capital to provide for retirement.
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