“I know how you feel.” “Are you okay, really okay?” “Are you dating yet?”
When a woman loses a partner to divorce or death near or after age 50, the “golden years” are often anything but golden, both financially and emotionally. However, with the right support and preparation, you can find a new path to a satisfying life.
At first, friends and even strangers who aren’t sensitive to your loss or haven’t been in your shoes may barrage you with questions: What was it like to divorce after a long-term marriage? Was he having an affair? Did your dying spouse go through great pain?
Many take their well-meaning sympathy a step further and make assumptions about how you feel. If you’re divorced, they try to console you: “You know we never liked him.” Or for a widow, their empathy may be, “He’s no longer suffering and in a better place.” It’s as if they had checked on him in the Great Beyond.
Sadly, such consoling usually doesn’t console. In many cases, the divorced woman loved her former spouse and tried to salvage the marriage. The widow likely wishes, even if it seems selfish, that her loved one still was with her despite pain. In each case, they are terrified about the emotional and financial challenges.
We learned these lessons firsthand when we each faced a personal tsunami that we chronicled in our book, Suddenly Single after 50. Barbara moved to Rhinebeck from the Midwest a decade after her husband of 31 years informed her, “The passion is gone.” She had no clue, and believed they simply needed to work on the marriage. Wrong.
Margaret, her long-time writing partner, never fathomed that her husband of 42 years and she wouldn’t share the “pay-off years,” when children are on their own. Wrong again. When they heard a doctor say “cancer,” and her husband’s blood levels kept plunging, they thought chemo treatments would correct the problem. After five years, his immune system shut down. Yet, he was so determined to survive that he refused to leave the hospital when doctors urged him to go home to die.
Sadly, we’re far from an anomaly, as couples live longer, yet don’t plan for when they aren’t together. While the country’s overall divorce rate has decreased since 1990, it has doubled for those over age 50, termed “gray divorce,” according to AARP. Reasons extend beyond longer life spans. Grown children aren’t the glue to keep a couple together, society doesn’t stigmatize couples who split, and more women work and seem better able to care for themselves. “Many couples who are in their 50s or 60s may have lost their connection, and realize they don’t need to stay together and be miserable,” says Vicki Larson, co-author of The New I Do and blogger at OMGChronicles.
But the reality is that most women can’t maintain the standard of living they had prior to their divorce, and suffer significant income decline. Typically, it drops 20 percent, according to the social science research article “Windows on Divorce: Before and After.” (Thomas L. Hanson, Sara S. McLanahan, Elizabeth Thomson, 1998) At the same time, remarriage is on the rise for Americans 55 and older, yet more than 67 percent of second marriages end in divorce.
Attorney Jane Cottrell, who lives in Stanfordville, got divorced a year ago at age 68 from her husband of 22 years. She hadn’t worked for the prior five years and pared down her lifestyle.
Paris Trefz, 53, was 44 when she knew her 18-year marriage was failing. Once she learned her husband was having an affair, she ended the marriage, even though the youngest of their four children was 6, she hadn’t worked in 10 years, and everything — house, car, business — was in his name. She got separated, moved from Dutchess County to Connecticut, got divorced, and moved back to her native California to start over. Five years later she returned to Rhinebeck so the children could be near their dad.
Other women also find divorce — and less often death — causes a significantly bigger financial hit after age 50. The main reason is based on simple arithmetic: less time to recover financially, especially if they’ve been out of the work force and dependent upon a spouse’s health insurance. “You don’t have 50 years to amass a nice nest egg,” says Chicago attorney Karen Covy, author of When Happily Ever After Ends: How to Survive Your Divorce Emotionally, Financially and Legally. In addition, the older you are, the more health issues you may face, making it more difficult to earn a living, she says. Rhinebeck financial advisor Vicki Haak, CFP, frequently hears women’s concerns about being able to live comfortably on their income and not fall into a level of poverty that affects their health and emotional well-being.
A desire to stay socially active may be another reason to return to work, as it was for Trefz. With a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, she landed a job at Bread Alone in Rhinebeck, where she works five days a week from 5:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cottrell, 69, who had willingly ceded financial responsibility to her husband during her marriage, which included borrowing from retirement funds for their “capital operations,” landed a position as Executive Director of the Mediation Center of Dutchess County. And Larson, 60, who struggled financially, took a job in the lifestyles department of her local California newspaper.
When it comes to death, many couples have not planned to ensure the surviving partner has been left with adequate resources. According to the Social Security Administration, 15 percent of women widowed may eventually become impoverished.
Despite the challenges, becoming suddenly single after 50 doesn’t mean this cohort must hang black crepe forever. However, it does require them to reset their GPS and go forward slowly. The new route can prove liberating.
Larson loves her job. Cottrell savors her independence and “has gotten more in touch” with her perceptions. And Trefz has found multiple benefits. “All of this wasn’t supposed to happen, but I love my new town, my kids are thriving, and I have so many good connections due to work,” she says, including a new companion in life.
The shared bottom line has led to a new adage: Take charge, and you can make a good life, even after 50.
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