Most bucket lists involve exciting activities, such as around-the-world trips, skydiving, bungee jumping, or trying exotic foods. However, in 2014, an 80-year-old Egyptian lady’s dying wish was for a divorce from her unfaithful husband; the judge granted her request. And in 2011, a 99-year-old Italian man filed for divorce from his 96-year-old wife after discovering a love letter she had penned to another man in the 1940s. These are extreme examples of a growing trend: so-called gray divorces. We as a society tend to think of divorce as something for the young, but many healthy people over 60, even if they have been married for over 30 years, are wondering to themselves, is it worth staying in a bad, toxic, or stale relationship for another 20-25 years?
Gray Divorces are Causing Financial Stress
In the mid-1900s, only 2.8% of Americans over the age of 50 got divorced; now that figure is closer to 15% – and rising. For many it seems like a good idea – single life, new, invigorating relationships, and freedom. However, divorce is listed as the fifth biggest cause of financial stress in adults. The resulting loneliness is also one of the largest causes of stress in the over 70s. Here’s the full list of financial stress triggers:
- Job Loss/Reduction – 51%
- Healthcare – 29.5%
- Other – 21.6%
- Unpaid Taxes – 12.7%
- Divorce/separation – 8.2%
- Bankruptcy – 6.7%
- Foreclosure notices – 5.7%
Financial stress arises from the sudden break up of a co-dependency system – especially in a grey divorce, where that system has been in place for decades. The bills that used to be shared by two wage earners (or one wage earner paying the bills for two people) must now be paid independently. In dividing assets, one spouse may have an emotional attachment to a marital asset – such as the family home – and may want to keep it “at all costs.” If they give up their interest in their spouse’s pension to keep the house, the financial repercussions could be dire: they could be left with a house they can’t afford and not enough money to pay their bills in retirement. And the legal wrangles over the division of assets and debts, and setting an amount and duration for spousal support are rarely harmonious, as most divorced people know from bitter experience.
How Stress Affects the Body and Mind
It is possible to cover the effects of stress on the mind and body separately, but it is worth noting beforehand that one can affect the other. They are not separate systems so financial stress can cause depression for example which weakens the immune system and makes a person more prone to illness. In return, stress-related health issues can make someone more depressed and anxious. Furthermore, if left untreated, physical and mental stress can lead to much larger health problems, which in America can incur further healthcare costs and exacerbate financial difficulties.
Let’s look at the physical effects of stress first. Financial stress shows itself on the body in different ways depending on the person, but in general, they can include symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, chest pains, rapid heartbeats, low energy, susceptibility to colds and infections, loss of desire, and upset stomachs. In addition to this, some people may take up other habits such as poor sleeping patterns and teeth grinding. If left unchecked, these symptoms can get worse and can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Furthermore, as noted above, the body is more exposed to infections too at this time.
In terms of mental-health issues, the American Institute of Stress notes a wide number of symptoms including anxiety, depression, forgetfulness, anxiety, and nervous habits. These can all lead to poor lifestyle habits as a coping mechanism. These include alcoholism, drug taking, smoking, and the eating of comfort foods. Official studies have shown all of these habits to increase during times of financial and emotional stress. Alcoholism and smoking is a more common response in men than women, while junk-food eating is more prevalent among women than men.
Coping with Financial Stress During a Gray Divorce
Going through a divorce and creating a new, individual life is not easy at the best of times – and it can be even harder for older couples. If you’re approaching retirement and your nest-egg isn’t going to cover the costs of two people living separately, you need to figure out where that money is going to come from. Maybe one of you will have to delay retirement, or maybe one of you is going to have to find a job after being a stay-at-home spouse for 20-30 years. Both of these financial scenarios could generate significant stress for those facing a gray divorce.
The first thing to do is to engage a financial expert to look over your finances and project your net worth and cash-flow into retirement so you know what you’re facing rather than getting yourself worked up over guesswork. Who knows: your situation may be better than you think!
Once you have an expert assessment of your finances – and have put plans to secure your financial future into process – it’s time to take care of your physical and mental health. Coping with grey divorce will be easier if you have a clear head and are feeling healthy. Although some stress is normal and even healthy, reducing your bad stress will increase brain power, decision-making ability, and physical health and well-being. Some things to consider include:
Improve your diet. Cut back on alcohol, cigarettes, and junk food. Eat plenty of good vegetables, fruit, and healthier options like olive oil and fish. In doing so, you start feeling better immediately as all the vitamins and minerals get working on you.
Exercise more. Being over 50 may make exercise a little more difficult, but working out or even going for walks is good for the soul. Get out more, get some fresh air, and see how it makes you feel better. Of course, take it slow to start with – and always check with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.
Find reasons to laugh. This can be tough during divorce, but consider watching a comedy series or funny movie, getting together with friends who make you laugh, or take up a new hobby (or revive an old one) that gives you pleasure. Positive thinking and humor – whether it’s gentle, slapstick, or black humor – is good for the mind and soul.
Relax. You might want to get things sorted faster, but having your mind consumed by the problems is a real issue and makes the stress worse. Learning to relax again is vital for good health, good sleep and most of all, for letting your brain process all the decisions and factors in the background. If relaxing is a big issue, try meditation and get support.
If you follow these ideas, you can forge a path to feeling better and reducing your divorce-related stress. In doing so, you will find it easier to make decisions about how to settle your divorce and how you will set up your new life. You will also find it easier to make new connections and feel healthier in your retirement. Most of all, don’t forget that there is help out there for you if you need it.
Jess Walter is a freelance writer and mother. She loves the freedom that comes with freelance life and the additional time it means she gets to spend with her family and pets.