Death may not entirely do us part

Death may not entirely do us part

The well-being of bereaved pensioners continues to be influenced by their partner – even after they’ve passed away, suggests new research.

As married couples spend day in and day out together, they begin to experience a level of interdependence in which one spouse’s quality of life is very closely tied to that of the other.

Now a new study suggests that interdependence persists even AFTER one of them dies.

Researchers found that a person’s quality of life at the time of their death continues to influence his or her spouse’s quality of life for years following their passing.

And the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests the association between a deceased and surviving spouse is just as strong as the association between partners who are both living.

Lead researcher Kyle Bourassa, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Arizona, said: “The people we care about continue to influence our quality of life even when they are gone.

Elderly couple - Walking in gardens - Free for commercial use  No attribution required - Credit Pixabay “We found that a person’s quality of life is as interwoven with and dependent on their deceased spouse’s earlier quality of life as it is with a person they may see every day.”

In previous work, the researchers found evidence of synchrony, or interdependence, between partners’ quality of life, finding that a person’s cognitive functioning or health influences not only their own well-being but also that of their partner.

They wondered whether the interdependence continues even when one of the couple die.

To find out, they used the Study of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), an ongoing research project with more than 80,000 participants across 18 European countries plus Israel.

They examined data from 546 couples in which one partner had died during the study period and 2,566 couples in which both partners were still living.

The researchers found that participants’ quality of life earlier in the study predicted their quality of life later.

And the data also provided evidence for interdependence between partners – a participant’s quality of life earlier in the study was associated with his or her partner’s quality of life later.

The results also revealed interdependence between partners even when one died during the study; the association remained even after the researchers accounted for other factors that might have played a role – such as the participants’ health, age, and years married.

The researchers were surprised to find no observable difference in the strength of the interdependence in couples’ quality of life when comparing widowed spouses with spouses whose partners remained alive.

The results from the first group of couples were replicated in a second, independent sample of couples from the SHARE study, bolstering the researchers’ confidence in their findings.

Mr Bourassa said: “Even though we lose the people we love, they remain with us, at least in part.

“At some level, this accentuates how important relationships are for our well-being, but the findings cut two ways – if a participant’s quality of life was low prior to his or her death, then this could take a negative toll on the partner’s later quality of life as well.”

The researchers believe that ongoing interactions are a likely driver of synchrony in intact couples, while the thoughts and emotions generated by reminiscing may explain interdependence for those who lost spouses.

Now the researchers hope to examine possible reasons in future studies.

Mr Bourassa said: “What we want to know is this: is just thinking about your partner enough to create the interdependence? If so, how might we use this information to better help those who have lost their spouse?”

by Stephen Beech