Homemaker Trudy Martin of Loma Linda was 57 and married for 33 years when her husband said he wanted a divorce. He wanted to marry a younger woman.
"I was absolutely stunned," Martin said. "I didn't really want to live anymore."
She spent the next two years sequestered at home, refusing to go out even to see a doctor when she became very ill. "My way of life had been ripped away from me, and at the time I thought I had nothing to live for. I lost my identity because I always thought of myself as his wife. And I was ashamed and embarrassed because no one in my family had ever been divorced."
Martin, now 61, sought therapy. Today she leads an active life as a volunteer at nursing homes and her church, she said in an interview. She also supplements her income by selling hats and sweaters she knits.
Martin was among 120 people attending a conference on Embracing Life After Divorce at UC Irvine last weekend sponsored by the university's Women's Opportunity Center.
Divorce can be a painful experience, but its impact on older couples can be devastating, especially for women, said Jean Pond, president of Adult Careers Inc. in Irvine who discussed divorce after the age of 50 at the conference.
"Elderly women who have been married all of their lives grew up under a different set of rules than today," Pond said in an interview. "When a woman got married 30 or 40 years ago, she was expected to stay at home and take of the children.
"Suddenly, at age 55, she is facing a divorce and may need to support herself by looking for work. But it is very difficult for a woman to find a decent-paying job at that age, and, despite the fact that it is illegal for employers to discriminate based on age, it happens all the time. Many women become depressed, and sometimes that depression can lead to illness."
The number of divorces among older Americans has doubled since 1960, the Census Bureau says, with 113 of every 1,000 marriages among couples 55 to 64 ending in divorce by 1984.
Pond, 68, lectures throughout the area promoting Adult Careers, a nonprofit organization which finds employment for people 55 or older. In her four years there, she has found that it is usually older husbands who ask for divorces, "trading in the old model for a new one."
"Sometimes it will be the woman who wants the divorce but has waited for the children to grow up before seeking one," she said. "In some marriages, even if the couple have been together for 30 years, one more day is too much."
Pond, a former high school teacher, said she sees people in the economic aftermath of divorce when they are searching for work to survive.
"In the old days, the woman usually got the house and some financial support in a divorce; with today's no-fault divorce laws, things are divided equally," she said. "In many cases, the house is sold and the money divided, but the husband still has a job. The wife's skills have been primarily in homemaking, and it is difficult for her to find employment that will support her as comfortably as before."
Application of Skills
Divorced homemakers in their 50s and 60s come to Adult Careers believing that they have no skills, Pond said. She points out that many homemaker skills can be applied to outside employment.
Jane Bickner of Irvine was 54 when her husband told her he wanted a divorce, she said. Now at age 68, she is a volunteer at Adult Careers and believes that her experience can help others facing divorce.
"It was very painful for me and very difficult, and I know that I was more fortunate than many women," Bickner said. "I had worked outside of the home, although I didn't work for a long time. When I went in search of work, people would look at me and say I was overqualified, or they said they would call me, but I waited and none called. I had to find work, but it took a while. They (employers) never said to my face that I was too old, but I am certain it was a factor."
In addition to the heartbreak of divorce, Bickner said she had many social adjustments to make.
'A Couple Society'
"We have a couple society, and if you've functioned as a couple most of your life and suddenly you aren't part of a couple, it's very hard," she said. "It's almost like a death in the family and sometimes harder to get over than a death."
Although Pond said divorce is especially difficult for older women emotionally and financially, older men are also hit hard emotionally when their wives seek a divorce.
Men over 55 grew up in another era when it was their job to provide for their wives while the women ran the home, Pond said. Now roles for men and women have changed, and some wives want out of traditional marriages. But self-esteem and respect often go out the window during the divorce, she added.
Gloria Sklansky, a Ph.D in clinical psychology in Irvine who spoke at the conference, said many people feel a sense of loss after a divorce, even when the marriage was unbearable.