Nothing really seems to be permanent in this world because a recent study reveals that even older married couples are still at high risk of ending up in divorce, especially when the wife is suffering from a serious health problem.

In a study, In Sickness and In Health? Physical Illness as a Risk Factor for Marital Dissolution at Older Ages, the researchers examined 20 years of data gathered from 2,717 marriages and how the inception of at least four serious health conditions impacted their marriages.

The data [pdf] from the marriages were sourced out from a Health and Retirement Study that was conducted since 1992 by the Institute for Social Research. The health conditions involved in the study were stroke, lung disease, heart problems and cancer. During the first interview, one of the spouses was at least more than 50 years old.

What they found was that 31 percent of these marriages led to divorce by the end of the studied period. Aside from that, there is an increased incidence of new serious health conditions as well accounting to 47 percent of the participants, with more husbands becoming victims of serious health conditions than wives. Meanwhile, 24 percent of these marriages ended in widowhood, and the rest of the participants remained married.

Apparently, gender plays a significant role in the study, whether the marriage surpasses the illness or not. Findings indicate that it is only when the wife got sick that there is an increased chance of divorce, and not the other way around.

"Married women diagnosed with a serious health condition may find themselves struggling with the impact of their disease while also experiencing the stress of divorce," says study researcher Amelia Karraker at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

She also adds that women are twice as vulnerable to divorce in the face of sickness and that they are very likely to get widowed or divorced. It was not assessed, however, in the study why wives who are sick are more susceptible to divorce than when their husbands are the ones who get chronic disease.

Yet she shares what could be the reasons behind this.  

"Gender norms and social expectations about caregiving may make it more difficult for men to provide care to ill spouses," she explains. "And because of the imbalance in marriage markets, especially in older ages, divorced men have more choices among prospective partners than divorced women.

She also discloses that they do not have data on who really initiated the divorce in the study, yet she emphasizes that women are the ones who initiate in most cases. This could be because the husbands were not taking care of them well, so these women would rather let him go and instead rely on family and friends to look after them.

She also notes that with the growing concern over the rising health care expenses for the older population, policymakers should have awareness of the possible relationship between having a serious health condition and the possibility of divorce in married couples.

She suggests providing support services to spouses who became caregivers may minimize the strain in marriages and even prevent divorce at these ages. She likewise underscores the need to understand that the divorce may be a result of health issues and the former wives may also need extra care and assistance to stop the deteriorating health and to decrease health costs.

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