Studies show more older men outliving their wives, may have trouble coping

Wednesday, December 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CORNWALL, Pa. (AP) _ At midmorning, the Rev. Carl Ehrhart is in no hurry to clean up his breakfast remains from the kitchen table: bacon bits stuck to small egg white blobs, half an English muffin, half a glass of orange juice, a nearly full mug of black coffee.

The lingering leftovers reveal one way Ehrhart's life at the Cornwall Manor retirement community has changed since his wife, Geraldine, died of bone cancer on March 15, 2000. Gerry, as he called her, probably would have whisked the dirty dishes into the dishwasher soon after he had finished his last bite.

``I think I do a reasonable job, but what's reasonable for me doesn't mean very high standards,'' said Ehrhart, who arranges for the facility's housekeeping staff to clean his one-story ranch house every other week.

``My wife would look at a house or a room and see everything that needed to be done. I look at the same thing and I don't see anything. For me, it has to be real gross, real obvious ... I can't live in a pigpen.''

Ehrhart, an 83-year-old retired Methodist pastor and philosophy professor, is among an increasing number of older men who are outliving their wives, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The number of widowers 65 and older was nearly 2 million last year, an increase of more than 50 percent from 1.3 million in 1980. But widowers in that age group still are vastly outnumbered by widows _ 8.5 million in the 2000 census.

Some research suggests that elderly men may have more trouble coping with a spouse's death because they often are not prepared for it, and they are also less likely to confide in anyone about their grief because they fear showing signs of weakness, said John McIntosh, an Indiana University psychology professor.

``Most don't expect that their wives will die first,'' McIntosh said. ``In addition to that, we know that men ... have been socialized to be independent and not turn to other people for help. The men who are widowers today are very unaccustomed to and probably quite uncomfortable with seeking help, and might even shun help that is offered.''

At the same time, McIntosh and other experts also caution against drawing excessively broad conclusions from such findings. Regardless of gender, other factors such as the untimeliness of the death, the quality of the marriage and family support also influence how a survivor copes, said Rick Morycz, chief of geriatric services at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh.

``After a period of normal grief, about six months to a year, most people do successfully adapt and do fine,'' Morycz said. ``If you're widowed and you have poor health, or you don't have enough social support, those factors do more to directly affect self-esteem.''

Eighty-three-year-old Frank Palmer has relied on a broad social network since his wife, Laura, died of colon cancer in 1997.

Palmer belongs to a support group of about 20 widowers and widows who meet once a month. He also gets weekly phone calls from his son who lives in a neighboring county; his daughter in Atlanta visits a few times a year; and he boasts having ``the best neighbors in the world.''

He is currently busy sending Christmas cards to 150 friends and family members, carrying on a task he and Laura performed together in their Harrisburg home, where Palmer still lives. After she died, he expanded the project to include remembering everyone's birthdays and anniversaries. He estimates the mailings cost him $200 to $300 in postage a year.

``I sign every one of them 'In loving memory,' and everyone knows what that means because it was the theme of the funeral service, and it's also inscribed on her tombstone,'' Palmer said.

Palmer takes comfort in his support group meetings, where members read Bible passages, share stories about funny things that happened to them during the month, and send each other off with a ritual hug and kiss good-bye. As the oldest member, he makes a special effort to reach out to newcomers.

``I'm kind of a self-appointed counselor. I send them a card and tell them to call me, help them with questions about how to handle Social Security and things like that,'' Palmer said. ``I keep busy doing that. I don't have much time to get down in the dumps.''

Ehrhart derives most of his support from visits and phone calls from his three ``magnificent'' daughters, as well as members of his church. But he is also unafraid of solitude, regularly going out to dinner by himself at restaurants, and feels no need to join a formal support group.

Ehrhart has his wife's permission to remarry if he wishes, but he doesn't see much point in doing so, given his age and his contentment with life.

``It's not part of my thinking at this point,'' he said. ``I've got it too good the way I am. When you've got your family, your support group as close together as I know we are, what's the point?''