New Internationalist

Starting Again

Issue 090

Older women face the dual calamities of poverty and loneliness with little mutual support or public recognition. Judy McLard talks to Dorie Wheeler, one older woman who decided to do something about it.

I felt I was a new woman, starting a new life. I would try my wings in a new place. Then I discovered 1 had to start my life over, alone, and whatever there was left was my responsibility to create. And that was scarey.’ Dorie Wheeler separated from her husband five years ago, leaving the family home, two grown children, a circle of friends and a 25-year marriage. Suddenly she found herself forced to begin a solitary odyssey into a new world instead of settling into mythical ‘golden years’ of comfortable and secure retirement with her husband.

Photo: Judy McLard
Dorrie Wheeler: 'trying to turn the lights on in a dark room.' Photo: Judy McLard

Given the fate of most older women in North America, Dorie Wheeler had reason to be scared. She realized there were many years of life still ahead. In fact in North America a woman at 50 can look forward to at least 25 more years. In industrialized countries to age is to grow poor. But to be older and female is to be even poorer. In Canada three out of five poor adults are women and two out of three elderly women have incomes below the poverty line. The average income of families headed by men is almost twice that of women right up to retirement age. Only after 65 do incomes of men and women even out - then they are uniformly low for both sexes.

Her marriage break-up was a blow for Dorie, but she was not about to become a victim. Having re-settled and adjusted to her new life, she began to organize a selfhelp group for women like herself - women in their 50s and 60s who found themselves unexpectedly alone. The question they all faced was ‘what is to be done when there is no family’.

‘I tried to answer that by organizing small groups of women who will care personally what happens to one another,’ Dorie says. ‘A support group to call on in moments of despair. But more than that a place where we can examine ourselves, our pasts, our weaknesses and strengths, our society’s effect on us and, most important of all, the possibilities for creating new lives.’

She began by contacting social agencies. Slowly a small network of single, older women formed, meeting in one another’s homes every week or so. Some women came regularly and found good friends within the group. Others drifted in for only a short time. Still others simply phoned to ask about the group and talk about their own lives. Although a woman may never show up for a meeting, the understanding she receives in a brief phone call is valuable, Dorie feels, even if it serves only as a temporary moment of comfort or a safety valve in a time of great stress. So many women began to call, in fact, that the group decided to set up its own ‘crisis-line’. Calls from older women, alone or about to separate, were taken by group members at any time of day or night.

After 65, a woman’s potential partners her own age begin to die off. Even so it is unlikely an older woman will be seen as a desirable marriage partner by any man. In 1975 in Canada nearly half of older women were widows, and 60 per cent of all older women were living alone.

Women find mid-life separation and divorce devastating for many reasons - most of them tied to social and economic equalities between the sexes.

‘The advantages of separation are always on the side of the male,’ Dorie points out. ‘There are few gains for women.’ Most, whether or not they work outside, view the home and family as the heart of their existence. (Although this.is less true today than it was in Dorie’s generation, when women had more children and were less likely to work outside the home.) in middle age when the first child leaves home a process of irrevocable change begins in a woman’s life. The phenomenon of the ‘empty nest’ is taken to its extreme with the loss of a husband.

‘These women,’ says Dorie, ‘suddenly realize the future which had been a lighted room filled with plans and dreams is now a dark, frightening void which has to be entered alone. They face the task of building a life from scratch, alone in a world where the family unit is the only remaining connection.’

But without question the most serious concern facing an older single woman is money. Her problems often begin with the divorce settlement. ‘Women give a great deal to marriage in labour, effort and concern, but their contribution isn’t recognized in the courts. In most cases of separation, women in an emotional crisis are in no position to fight a battle. They often trust a lawyer only to find a year later that the settlement favours the husband. Perhaps no allowance has been made for the increasing cost-of-living. His income goes steadily up, hers goes down. She may get half the family home and half the family car, but she’ll never be fully compensated for everything she’s put into the marriage.’

Photo: Margaret Murray
Photo: Margaret Murray

With separation and divorce, women lose any financial status they may have had through association by marriage. They have no credit rating, they are considered poor risks by landlords, they may have no saleable skills and once beyond a certain age they face discrimination in the job market. Employers advertise for ‘office girls’, ‘gal-Fridays’, or ‘right-hand girls’, making any woman over 30 think twice about applying, much less if she is 45 or 50. ‘What strikes me,’ Dorie adds, ‘is that marriage is seen as a partnership. Two people get married to be partners in life, no matter what comes. But when there is a separation or divorce, it’s not a partnership at all. The man has done it all, and he gets it all. The woman may get half the domestic property, but the husband gets his half plus everything else.’

The injustices against older women were part of the reason Dorie began to bring women together to tackle their own problems head-on.

‘The main purpose was to bring us all into the human community. When we have done this by talking, reading, studying, sometimes with assistance from an appropriate counsellor, we can strike out in new directions, explore new paths, use our futures - in fact, turn on the lights in that dark room. And we know we have a ‘family’, a community of support. On our own maybe but not alone.’

After a lifetime of dependence on husbands and children, older women often face life on their own. Mutual support can help.

Judy McLard

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