BEING SINGLE IN LATE-LIFE: SINGLE STRAIN, MODERATING RESOURCES, AND DISTRESS

Postgraduate

ABSTRACT

Using a sample of 532 nonmarried adults over age 65 residing in the District of Columbia and two adjoining Maryland counties, this study examines “single strain”––the strain of not being married or not living with a partner in late-life. First, I consider how social and economic statuses affect exposure of nonmarried elders to single strain. Second, I study how sociodemographic characteristics and psychosocial resources moderate the effect of single strain on mental health. Results of multiple OLS regression analyses indicate that while social statuses influence elders’ exposure to single strain, the differential emotional responsiveness of nonmarried older adults to single strain is largely unaffected by their sociodemographic characteristics. In contrast, mastery and selfesteem are powerful moderating resources: Nonmarried elders with high mastery and self-esteem are less adversely affected by single strain than those with lower levels of intrapsychic resources.

THEORETICAL RATIONALE

Nonmarried individuals differ from their married counterparts in daily routines, living arrangements, social and emotional experiences (Carr and Utz 2002; Kessler and Essex 1982). Singlehood may have pervasive and enduring influence on various aspects of life, including financial resources, social integration, and physical and mental wellbeing (Weiss 1981; Keith 1986; Ross 1995; Lopata 2000). Yet, though there is ample research of marital relationships and characteristics that contribute to marital satisfaction and well-being of married partners, “less evidence is available on adjustment to singleness per se” (Keith 1980:302). 

This study examines how the strain of singlehood––not being married or not living with an intimate partner in late-life (“single strain”)––affects mental well-being of older adults. Using data from a subsample of nonmarried individuals 65 years and older, I examine the exposure and vulnerability to single strain. First, I look at the social distribution of single strain to document the ways that the structural location of an individual may influence his or her exposure to this chronic stressor. For example, does the level of single strain vary by education, income, and employment status among older adults? Do women and blacks report higher levels of single strain than men and whites? Second, I examine the differential susceptibility (or vulnerability) of nonmarried elders to single strain with respect to its effects on depression and anxiety, net of sociodemographic factors. I also examine if three crucial psychosocial resources–– mastery, self-esteem, and social support––moderate the hypothesized adverse effects of single strain on elders’ mental health. Finally, I discuss the findings in the broader sociostructural context of exposure and vulnerability to chronic strains associated with being single in late-life.