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Relative loss stokes distress in older men.

Relative loss stokes distress in older men

Elderly men who lose a family member other than their wives report considerable increases in emotional distress and depression within six months of the relative's death, whereas elderly women weather comparable losses in good psychological shape, according to a new study. The bereavement hits hardest among widowers who do not belong to a church or temple, the researchers report.

Psychologists Judith M. Siegel and David H. Kuykendall at the University of California, Los Angeles, recruited 825 men and women aged 65 or older from a California health maintenance organization. The majority of volunteers in this predominantly Caucasian sample were married, female, in good health and members of a church or temple. Among the 117 participants who had lost a relative in the past six months, the most common loss was a sibling or sibling-in-law, followed by a nephew or niece, cousin, parent or parent-in-law, uncle or aunt, child, and grandchild.

the researchers measured depression with a questionnaire focusing on the frequency and severity of 20 symptoms during the preceding week, including appetite loss, hopelessness about the future, sleep difficulties, crying spells and feelings of loneliness. Most interviews were conducted by phone.

Overall, Siegel and Kuykendall found that elderly men reporting the recent death of a relative experienced markedly more depression than did men who noted no familial deaths. Moreover, widowers were more depressed by such a loss than were married men, and men who did not belong to a church or temple were more depressed by their loss than were men with church or temple membership, the team reports in the October JOURNAL OF CONSULTING AND CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY.

The nine recently bereaved widowers with no church or temple affiliation -- a measure of social contacts used in the study -- suffered the most depression. In fact, each of these men scored above the standard cutoff for clinical depression established with the same questionnaire in studies of the general adult population, suggesting that the emotional distress of grieving substantially interfered with their daily functioning, Siegel says.

All other participants scored below the cutoff, with elderly widows and married women displaying statistically insignificant increases in depression following the death of a relative, she notes.

In light of the new findings, Siegel suggests that churches, temples and community organizations consider developing aggressive outreach programs offering emotional support to widowed men after the death of a family member.

Studies by others of recently widowed adults have indicated that men suffer more emotional problems after the loss of a spouse than do women. The reasons for the gender gap in bereavement remain unclear, but Siegel contends that women apparently have more social ties that help ease distress when a relative dies. Men may have fewer close ties outside their marriage than do women; when widowed, they may also rely more heavily on family members for help with shopping, meals and housekeeping, she suggests.

She notes, however, that her study showed a curious rise in depression scores among married women with no church or temple membership compared with all women who had experienced a recent loss. Perhaps these women anticipate extensive emotional support from their husbands in the wake of a relative's death, only to find that the husbands fall short of those expectations, she speculates.

The California study did not establish how close each participant was to his or her deceased relative. Moreover, Siegel acknowledges that affiliation with a church or temple may reflect spiritual beliefs that ease distress after a loved one's death. Further studies are needed, she says, for a more accurate assessment of social ties among the bereaved elderly.
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Title Annotation:loss of family members
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 3, 1990
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