The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Widowhood, Religion, and Mortality Among Older Adults

Friday, January 18, 2013
Grande Ballroom A, B, and C (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Hyejin Kim, MA, Doctoral Student, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Karen A. Randolph, PhD, Associate Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Background and Purpose: The death of a spouse is a traumatic event in one’s life (Atchley & Barusch, 2000), and can have a negative impact on mental health, physical functioning, and even increased mortality among surviving spouses (Elwert & Christakis, 2008; Lee & Carr, 2007). On the other hand, religious factors are positively related to health outcomes among older adults (Helma, Hays, Flint, Koeniga, & Blazera, 2000; Palmer, Katerndahl, & Morgan-Kidd, 2004) and may decrease the negative effects of widowhood on their well-being (Momtaz, Ibrahim, Hamid, & Yahaya, 2010) In spite of the importance of religion among older adults in widowhood, research is limited with regard to understanding its effects on mortality. The relationship between widowhood, religion, and mortality among older adults can be better understood by clarifying the main and moderating effects of religion. Therefore, this study examines the main and moderating effects of three measures of religion on mortality among older adults in widowhood.

 Methods: The sample included 9,956 older adults aged 65 and over who participated in the Health and Retirement (HRS) RAND study. This is an ongoing longitudinal study of a nationally-representative sample of older adults in the United States. Hierarchical binary logistic regression procedures were used to analyze the data. Religion was measured using three variables—religious preference, religious services participation, and religious importance. Models controlled for demographic, socioeconomic, and health status factors.

 Results: The odds ratio of widowhood was 1.97, which means that widowed older adults tend to be 1.97 times more likely to die than married older adults. However, when demographic and socioeconomic factors were controlled, the effect of widowhood on mortality was no longer significant. Two religion variables—religious services participation and religious importance—had a direct impact on mortality. The odds of mortality were lower for older adults who participated in religious services (OR=.86; p=.001) but higher for those with stronger beliefs about the importance of religion (OR=1.17; p=.001). Religious participation moderated the relationship between widowhood and mortality in that the odds of mortality increased among widowed older adults who participated in religious services more often (OR=1.21; p=.001).

 Conclusions and Implications: Unlike religious services participation which was negatively related to the risk of mortality, religious importance was positively related to the risk of mortality. This finding is counter to our hypothesis, and may indicate a reverse causal relationship such that religious beliefs become stronger for individuals at the end of their lives. The positive moderating effect of religious participation on the relationship between widowhood and mortality is also incongruent with our hypothesis and requires further investigation. It may be that other factors such as low social support or poor health affect these relationships. More sophisticated longitudinal models need to be conducted to clarify the causal relationships between widowhood, religion, and mortality, and potentially relevant factors such as social support should be considered in future studies.