Loss of a spouse is the number one stressor according to Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. Compound that stress with the shorter, darker, colder days of winter and the holiday season and you are talking about some serious stress for this group of people.
According to the 2011 U.S. Census, the median age of widowhood was 59. Other statics claim the average age is 55 or 56. Anyway you slice it, people are usually in disbelief about that age, but they shouldn’t be. Stop and think about the people in your own life that have been widowed. Reflecting on my own life, my mother-in-law’s mother was widowed at 50. This summer, our friend was widowed at 53 with three teenaged kids; and, this spring our neighbor was widowed at 89. This week, we received a call from a woman that was widowed at 45 with a five-year-old; and, we are also working with three recent widows who are 63, 65 and 67.
This financial situation for widows is often very difficult. According to the U.S. Census (2000) almost half the women over 65 years of age in the U.S. are widows. About seven in 10 of these women live alone. Three out of five women over 65 cannot cover their basic needs.
On average, 75% of the survivor’s support base is lost following the loss of a spouse or significant other, which includes loss of support from family and friends. This might be due to the awkwardness that couple friends might now have with a single friend, or the widow might be so deep in grief that it difficult to be around her. She might have so much more responsibility on her shoulders now from the financial earning, managing the home and children that she has no time for anyone or anything else. But also, many of us just move on with our own lives and forget to check in.
What can you do for yourself and your family? First of all, make sure you have a financial plan which takes care of everyone and everything financially in case there is a death of a spouse. That would include having the proper life insurance coverage and ensuring all payments are current. Enough coverage or savings should be accessible to pay off all debts, including mortgages. If there are children, financial support will be needed to provide for everyday living along with financial support for education.
Make sure you annually review your named beneficiaries on your financial accounts and you have an updated estate plan. Consider having both spouses listed on any accounts (bank, credit card, utilities, etc.) and other joint assets such as vehicles. These little details will make it much easier for any surviving spouse to settle financial affairs. Remember, much of our lives are stored electronically behind a password so make sure your spouse knows your passwords.
Now for the softer side this situation—the human side. Keep reaching out to your recently widowed friend or family member, even if you’ve offered over and over again. Offer to drive them to a bereavement group and wait for them. Treat them to lunch every now and then. Send them a Christmas, Valentine’s Day or other holiday card. Remember their birthday, their spouse’s birthday and anniversary of their death with a phone call, card and/or visit. Offer to shovel when the snow starts falling and/or plant some flowers in the spring. Out of the blue send them a simple text or email letting them know you are thinking of them. In short, keep connected to them so they feel supported.
The holidays are time filled with joy, merriment and anticipation for so many of us. But keep in mind that this season can be very challenging for those who are now moving forward on their own. We created a post holiday retreat to help support widows on their journey of reinvention at a time of year when we are likely to think about the future with anticipation and hope. It’s just one tool of support.
As the New Year unfolds, make a commitment to gain more knowledge of your families financial situation. The gift of preparedness is one of the best gifts to give and receive!