Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The reluctant bachelor

For older widowers, the return to single life is more sad than swingin'

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To say that Harold "Hal" Spielman's life changed when his wife of 32 years died from cancer five years ago would be an understatement.

"I was alone for the first time in my life. I felt lost. I didn't know where the chequebook was," Spielman, 85, recalls from his home in suburban New York.

Although he had built a successful market and communications research business with Fortune 500 companies as clients, he didn't know how to cope with being suddenly single.

In need of both practical advice and emotional support, Spielman turned to the Internet. Though there were countless books and resources for widowed or divorced women, he found virtually nothing for men -- especially mature men like himself.

So Spielman, a sociologist by training, became his own expert. He completed seven separate in-depth surveys with more than 1,000 divorced and widowed men (and 600 women) over the age of 55 to find out how other people were navigating the new uncoupled terrain and what they wanted moving forward.

The result is Suddenly Solo: A Lifestyle Road Map for the Mature, Widowed or Divorced Man. The self-published book (which he co-wrote with golf buddy and business associate Marc Silbert), also spawned a website (suddenlysolo.org), where Spielman found himself an unexpected advice columnist under the heading Ask Hal.

His research, which addresses everything from "malnutrition avoidance" to loneliness to "sex (again)" to starting (and ending) a new relationship, has also landed him on national talk shows and promotional tours.

"This thing has gone way, way beyond anything I imagined," says Spielman. "I think we tapped into an area where there was an enormous gap."

While not as helpless, perhaps, as the gent in Spielman's book who had no idea how or where to find the pressed white shirts that stopped magically appearing in his closet after his wife died, Winnipegger Gene Walz, 70, can speak to the social and emotional void that often accompanies male widowhood.

"There was nothing out there. Men really are on their own," says the retired University of Manitoba film professor, who lost his wife of 37 years, Kathy, to cancer in 2011.

While mourning memoirs by Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates provided some solace, he says, books from the male perspective on loss and grief were noticeably absent from the genre.

Men of his generation were typically raised to stifle their emotions, Walz says, so to cope with the anguish of watching his wife succumb to a painful disease, on top of the stress of handling all the household duties, he kept working full-time.

"I just put my nose to the grindstone," says Walz, whose two daughters live in other cities. "I was physically and emotionally depleted by the time she died."

Someone from Cancer Care Manitoba did call to suggest counselling -- three weeks after her death -- but Walz says it was too little, too late. In retrospect, he admits it might have helped.

Because Kathy had been in remission from lymphoma since 1987, Walz says they often discussed what would happen if she relapsed. So it wasn't her death, exactly, that was unexpected.

"What you don't prepare for," he says, "is the complete change of everything" -- schedules, habits, social interactions, the way you interact with the world.

The toughest part, says Walz, who is tanned, fit and active, is no longer being a couple. "All I know is I don't get as many invites as I used to."

In his book, Spielman reassures suddenly single men that they are far from alone and, in fact are "part of a vast and growing legion" that accounts for about 17 per cent of the American population.

While that may be true if you account for the divorce rate, Canadian sociologist Deborah van den Hoonaard says widowers, as a group, are something of a rare breed. In what is likely one of the first, and only, academic books devoted entirely to them, she validates Spielman and Walz's experiences.

"Because there are proportionately so few widowers, they have an atypical status, with few peers to assist in adjustment and socialization," van den Hoonaard writes in 2010's By Himself: The Older Man's Experience of Widowhood.

By age 85, according to the book, almost 56 per cent of men remain married, compared with just 12 per cent of women.

Nonetheless, as the New Brunswick author points out, that's still more than 300,000 widowers in Canada -- men about whom we know remarkably little.

"Widowers are pretty well ignored in research, partially because older people in general aren't studied very much outside of health issues," van den Hoonaard says during a phone interview.

Between 2000 and 2002, the sociologist interviewed 26 widowers (19 in urban and rural Atlantic Canada and seven in Florida retirement communities) over the age of 60. When asked what was the most surprising aspect of their experience, most answered just the fact of being widowed, period.

"It is so unexpected for men to become widowers that the surprise of it is overwhelming," says van den Hoonaard. "Even if their wives had been sick a long time, they still didn't expect that they would be the ones left alone."

Most widowed men, she found, are not as helpless as the stereotype suggests -- Spielman's book contains a chart of maximum food-storage times and several pages of personal-care tips. What she did find, though, was that older men especially viewed taking on the "feminine tasks" of cooking and housekeeping as a challenge to their masculinity.

What van den Hoonaard's interviews and Spielman's research did confirm is the commonly held belief that most widowers will want to find a new woman, usually sooner than later. One-third of her subjects had remarried or were in an exclusive relationship.

In Spielman's surveys, 22 per cent of men said it was "extremely important" to have a woman in their lives (compared with only nine per cent of women who felt likewise about a man). But where 73 per cent of divorced men were dating within six months of becoming single, only 27 per cent of widowers had dated in that same period.

Interestingly, van den Hoonaard found that because they lack a peer or "reference group," with which to identify, many widowers look to their younger, bachelor selves as role models for being single again. Unfortunately, neither they nor the social landscape was the same as it had been.

Walz can attest to that. While he has tried a couple of Internet dating sites that cater specifically to seniors, he's disheartened by how many people misrepresent themselves in their profiles.

Where 22 per cent of the coupled men in Spielman's surveys met the woman they're with online, the biggest category (26 per cent) became involved with a woman they'd known in their past.

"They're thinking back to the cheerleader they remember when they were in college. They find out that she's been widowed, so they meet. They've got some history," he says. "Or maybe it's a friend of their wife's. It becomes a very easy transition."

While Walz says he could have three or four dates per week from the websites, he has not been visited by the so-called "casserole brigade." This is one of the biggest stereotypes of widowhood: that when a woman dies, a procession of love-starved widows will show up to bring the widower home-cooked food.

Spielman warns his male readers that women will be at their doorstep with meatloaf. Because of the ratios alone, he says, "Women will become very interested at some point in a widowed or divorced man, and food is one of the ways they'll try to get to him." (In the chapter called The Search, Spielman suggests single gents turn a three-ring binder (with alphabetical dividers and ruled paper) into a Dating Dossier, with a page for every woman they have a social relationship with.)

Sitcom stereotypes aside, the statistics do bear out that it's a buyer's market for widowed men.

Do the math, says van den Hoonaard. "There are about six times as many widows as widowers. Most widows don't want to remarry, but even if only one-third do, that's still two women for every man -- assuming every man wants to remarry, which he doesn't. So the balance is really off kilter."

Of course, statistics don't always paint an accurate picture when it comes to matters of the human heart.

"I had a good marriage with a smart, caring and adventurous wife and it's hard to settle for something less," says Walz.

He's been sustained, he says, because he has lots of friends, many interests and different circles of friends to share them with.

His advice to men who find themselves in his position is to remain socially active -- and open to new possibilities.

"Get your balance after you've been jarred and try to maintain it," Walz says. "Don't settle -- for being single the rest of your life, or for the first pleasant woman who comes along.

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2013 c1

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