Volume 43 - Article 21 | Pages 581–616

Life after death: Widowhood and volunteering gendered pathways among older adults

By Danilo Bolano, Bruno Arpino

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Date received:05 Feb 2020
Date published:26 Aug 2020
Word count:7939
Keywords:gender differences, HRS, older adults, trajectories of social activities, volunteering, widowhood


Background: Spousal loss is one of the most traumatic events an individual can experience. Studies on behavioral changes before and after this event are scarce.

Objective: This study investigates gender differences in pathways of volunteering before and after transition to widowhood among older adults in the United States.

Methods: We use longitudinal data from the Health and Retirement Study and estimate fixed effects models with lags and leads to identify pathways of volunteering on a sample of 1,982 adults aged 50 and over.

Results: The results show a U-shaped pattern with a decline in volunteering activities before the death of the partner and then a slight process of adaptation and recovery. The process is strongly gendered, with women considerably more resilient than men. Whether death was expected or not influences the effect of the partner’s death on volunteering, likely due to the pre-death burden of caregiving. Looking at the role of the partner’s volunteering before death, we found for both genders, but especially for women, that the odds of volunteering increase (decrease) if the partner was (was not) volunteering (complementarity hypothesis).

Contribution: Given the positive effects of volunteering both for the volunteer and the society as a whole, our findings contribute to the literature highlighting that critical family events may affect participation in society of older people and demonstrating the heterogeneity of the effects, especially in terms of gender differences.

Author's Affiliation

Danilo Bolano - Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi, Italy [Email]
Bruno Arpino - Università degli Studi di Firenze, Italy [Email]

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