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-effect 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-shape 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 partner death on volunteering likely
due to the pre-death burden of caregiving. Looking at the role of pre-death partner’s
volunteering we found, for both genders, but especially for women, that the odds of
volunteering increase (decrease) if the partner was (was not) volunteering
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.