LASA Widowhood (ancillary study)

Widowhood Adaptation Longitudinal Study (WALS, ancillary study)

(Alleen Verder Leven: een onderzoek naar de verwerking van het verlies van de partner)

Contact: Marjolein Broese van Groenou


  1. Introduction
  2. Theoretical framework
  3. Design and procedure
  4. Response
  5. Questionnaire & variables
  6. References

1. Introduction

As a part of the program “Living arrangements and social networks of older adults”, 143 of the respondents of the Main Study participated in the Widowhood Adaptation Longitudinal Study (WALS). This study was constituted as the data collection of a research program into “Adaptation to widowhood and the outcomes for personal relationships and well-being” (supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (grant # 510-77-603).
Widowhood has a strong negative impact on well-being, and feelings of loneliness are very common among widows and widowers. In addition, widowhood induces both losses and gains in the personal network. Usually, studies focused on either the social or the psychological consequences of widowhood. Yet, a thorough understanding of the process of adjustment to widowhood requires a focus on loneliness, network changes and individual coping responses over time. The central aim of WALS is to examine the mental and behavioral responses of older adults in the first two-and-a-half years after the partners’ death and the consequences of these responses for their personal relationships and well-being. Three issues are focused on in this study. Firstly, the study describes short-term developments in loneliness, coping responses and personal relationships (support and contact) of conjugally bereaved older adults. Secondly, the study explains differences in response patterns of older widows and widowers by interpreting these within the framework of the Theory of Mental Incongruity (TMI). Thirdly, conjoint developments in coping responses and personal relationships are examined to gain more insight in the phases of conjugal bereavement in old age.

2. Theoretical framework

Experiencing the loss of a partner is assumed to create ‘mental incongruence’ in bereaved persons due to an experienced lack of intimacy, contacts or support in social relationships. The process of adjustment is aimed at reducing this mental incongruence.
This can be accomplished by behavioral coping responses (e.g. seeking for social contacts) or by mental coping responses (e.g. lowering relationship standards). Behavioral coping responses are more likely to occur when perceived and actual opportunities to mobilize network support are more favorable high. Limited (perceived and actual) opportunities are, in combination with intense feelings of loneliness, more likely to endorse mental coping responses. Positive changes in personal relationships (e.g. increased support or the development of new relationships) are expected to result more from active support mobilization by the older adult than from mental adjustment.

3. Design and procedure

WALS is a prospective study in which participants were interviewed before their partner died (T0), and five times, with 6 – 7 months intervals, following bereavement (T1 – T5). Before partner loss, data were collected as part of the survey on “Living arrangements and social networks of older adults”. LSN-respondents with a partner (n = 2606; 60% of LSN-respondents) formed the baseline group for the present study. They received a short questionnaire twice a year in which we inquired after life events such as illness and partner loss. During this monitoring period, 239 respondents (9%) lost their partner. (Currently, observations before and after widowhood are available for more than 300 widowed respondents; see overview of widowhood). In total, 197 widows and widowers were approached: 34 respondents were widowed longer than 7 months, and 8 had died (first step ineligibles). Potential participants received an introductory letter that informed them about WALS. Shortly after, an interviewer, who asked for their cooperation, contacted them.

4. Response

T1 T2 T3 T4 T5
Interview completed 143 128 121 116 114
Deceased 7 4 2 1 2
Ineligible 19 5 3 4 2
Refusal 28 6 3 2 0

There are 111 respondents who took part in the entire study (T0-T5). During the course of the study 19 respondents had died and 26 respondents could not participate in one or more interviews due to mental or physical illness. Further details about the response are provided in Van Baarsen (2001).

5. Questionnaire and variables

Face-to-face interviews were conducted by trained lay-interviewers at the respondent’s home.

Topics in the questionnaire were:

  • demographics
  • the death of the partner
  • coping with the death of the partner
  • characteristics of the partner relationship
  • health, ADL and IADL capacity
  • relationship standards
  • the personal network
  • supportive exchanges with network members
  • relationship discrepancies and mobilization of relationships
  • loneliness
  • income
  • characteristics neighborhood
  • well-being
  • personality

6. References

  1. van Baarsen, B., Smit, J.H., Snijders, T.A.B., & Knipscheer, C.P.M. (1999). Do circumstances surrounding the death of a partner explain loneliness in newly bereaved older adults? Ageing and Society, 19, 441-469.
  2. van Baarsen, B., Snijders, T.A.B., Smit, J.H., & van Duijn, M.A.J. (2001). Lonely but not alone: Emotional isolation and social isolation as two distinct dimensions of loneliness in older people. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 61, 119-135.
  3. van Baarsen, B. (2001). How’s life? Adaptation to widowhood in later life and the consequences of partner death on the experienced emotional and social loneliness. PhD Dissertation, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
  4. van Baarsen, B., & Broese van Groenou, M.I. (2001). Partner loss in later life: Gender differences in coping shortly after bereavement. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 6, 243-262.
  5. van Baarsen, B. (2002). Theories on coping with loss: The impact of social support and self-esteem on adjustment to emotional and social loneliness following a partner’s death in later life. Journal of Gerontology, B57, S33-S42.
  6. van Baarsen, B., van Duijn, M.A.J., Smit, J.H., Snijders, T.A.B., & Knipscheer, C.P.M. (2002). Patterns of adjustment to partner loss in old age: The Widowhood Adaptation Longitudinal Study. Omega, Journal of Death and Dying, 44, 5-36.

Date of last update: July 26, 2003