Winter 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

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Your New Life

A program to ease the transition into becoming single.

Barbara W. Davis
Extension Specialist, Adult Development and Aging
Assistant Professor, Agricultural and Extension Education
The Cooperative Extension Service
The Pennsylvania State University - University Park

Marilyn M. Furry
Extension Specialist, Family Resource Management
Assistant Professor, Agricultural and Extension Education
The Cooperative Extension Service
The Pennsylvania State University - University Park

It hurts to be alone . . . when you've been part of a couple. Extension can help the divorced and widowed rebuild their lives. We can help them understand their troubled feelings and manage day-to-day responsibilities.

Extension family living professionals are in a strong position to educate and support adults undergoing major life transitions and to help these adults help each other. Successful educational interventions targeted to these concerns can alter the kind and amount of help adults seek and can enhance Extension's continuing credibility.

Extension risks irrelevance if it doesn't reach out to adults whose changing family structures differ from the traditional "couple-with-children" form. For example, a large number of men and women must deal with the stress associated with marital separation, divorce, or widowhood. In 1981, widowed and divorced adults comprised 14.6% of the population 18 years of age and over, and headed over 19 million American households.1

The economic aftermath of divorce is often devastating, particularly for women. The universal stress for one-parent families is reduced income.2 According to Colletta, "Poverty, in and of itself, is stressful, but it also generates stress in many areas of family life."3 Other researchers expanded our understanding of the experience of divorce and widowhood for men and women.4

Although there are differences in the experiences of the widowed and divorced5 and the recovery process is unique for each individual, there are some similar adjustments and changes in responsibilities during both transitions. Bowling and Cartright suggest that in times of stress, the enormity of such a change in role becomes magnified and may have some effect on emotional adjustment.6

Both research literature and personal encounters suggested the value of developing an Extension program to address some major concerns of recently widowed, divorced, and separated adults. The close intertwining of expressive and instrumental needs within this target audience made it essential for specialists in gerontology and family resource management to collaborate on program development.

The goals of the educational intervention program "Your New Life . . . Alone" were to help divorced, widowed, and separated adults understand and deal with their emotional state, increase their managerial capability, feel better about themselves, and know where to go for specific kinds of help that were beyond the scope of the program.

Several factors influenced the decision to reach out to these adults with materials that could be read at home: (1) some widowed and divorced adults feel uncomfortable in groups during the early months of their adjustment, (2) those with children may not attend meetings because of time and/or financial constraints, and (3) some women are reluctant to go out at night alone, especially in urban areas.

The Program

"Your New Life . . . Alone," a series of six informational letters, was developed for adults who had been separated, divorced, or widowed within the previous two years. The subject matter dealt with emotional, physical, and friendship issues; personal identity; financial management and planning; credit; legislation; and personal safety. The letters, using the salutation "Dear Friend," were written in a conversational style and referred the audience to more detailed sources of information to encourage self-directed learning.

To introduce the program, its developers conducted staff in-service education and developed a packet of support materials to help county home economists publicize, implement, and evaluate the program. The county staff sent one letter each week for six weeks to clientele who requested the materials. Some staff members shared the letters with members of support groups for widowed and divorced adults. In at least two counties, the series was reproduced by the print media, providing extensive circulation.

Five-County Evaluation

In the fall and winter of 1983-84, the program was evaluated in 5 Pennsylvania counties. The objectives were to assess the usefulness of the content, obtain participants' reports of their attitude and behavior changes, and pinpoint additional educational needs of the audience. The counties ranged from a large urban area to a rural county with a population of 17,000. The locations weren't randomly selected from the state's 67 counties, and the findings are intended primarily for use in program improvement.

County Extension home economists collected the evaluation data following the Dillman method of data collection.7 A total of 191 adults enrolled in the program and 134 (70%) returned evaluation questionnaires, 85% by females. Some residents requested the letters for professional or other reasons, but the evaluation report focuses on the 109 participants who defined themselves as widowed, divorced, or separated. Over two-thirds of the group (73%) had been alone two years or less.


Table 1. Participants' perceptions of help received from series.
A great deal
Not much
Subect matter W* D/S** W* D/S** W* D/S**
Understand common
  grief reactions
61% 26% 29% 69% 10% 5%
Accept need for
  love and affection
21 43 52 52 15 5
Make day-to-day
33 18 52 52 16 30
Feel better about
31 20 58 65 11 15
Find some good things
  about being alone
28 20 48 58 25 22
Delay making major
34 13 47 62 19 26
Involve self in new
24 33 37 35 40 33
Deal with unfamiliar
25 8 52 69 23 26
* Widowed
* * Divorced/separated

In each of the widowed and divorced/separated groups, 85% or more of the program participants said the letters had helped them somewhat or a great deal to: (1) understand some common grief reactions, (2) accept their need for love and affection, and (3) feel better about themselves. The least helpful material for both groups dealt with getting involved in at least 1 new activity, but even in this case, more than 60°/0 of the widowed group said they were helped somewhat or a great deal.

Two factors could have contributed to the sizable percentage of participants who reported that various content areas were "somewhat helpful," as opposed to "very helpful." First, we don't know the extent of perceived need, some of which could only be partially addressed by our series, which provides information and suggests other sources of help. Second, we can't determine how far the participants had progressed in their adaptation to singlehood before reading the letters. This timing would affect the amount of help they needed in the areas to which they were asked to respond.

Did the letters lead clientele to change behavior? We asked the participants to tell us what changes they had made and what changes they planned to make as a result of reading the letters. Table 2 summarizes this information.

Table 2. Participants' reported and anticipated behavioral changes.
Change reported
Change planned
Behavior W* D/S** W* D/S**
Choose friend as sounding board 19% 7% -- 7%
Identify financial needs 17 8 10% 25
List assets and liabilities 11 18 13 8
Keep daily checklist for routine activities 13 10 10 15
Establish credit rating 8 15 13 8
Keep financial records 7 11 8 23
* Widowed
* * Divorced/separated

Given the six-week time frame and the fact that some information reached clientele shortly before they completed the evaluation questionnaire, it's worth noting that the respondents were already reporting some behavior changes or planned changes. Although we didn't expect dramatic behavioral changes, one intent of the program was to develop participants' awareness of new resources available to them and to stimulate more effective managerial practices. It's encouraging that the series prompted 19% of the widowed group to choose a friend as a sounding board and 18% of the divorced and separated to list their assets and liabilities.

Whether reading the series reinforced earlier intentions or prompted new plans, planned changes are considered positive indicators of program effectiveness, because they suggest participants' increased awareness of ways to take better control of their lives. It's worthwhile to note that 25% of the divorced/separated planned to identify their financial needs and almost 23% planned to keep financial records.

What else did these adults need from Extension? Our data revealed that 45% of the total group wanted information about forming a support group and saving/investing money, 43% needed help in developing emotional stability, and 41 % wanted information about making minor home repairs. With the exceptions of managing time and minor home repairs, the divorced/separated were more interested than the widowed group in obtaining information about all topics listed.


Results of our evaluation suggest that an educational intervention of this type can be used to disseminate helpful information to a target audience and, through these adults, reach others. Of those who received "Your New Life . . . Alone," 70% reported that they'd talked with 1 or more people about the information in the letters, and 44°/a had recommended them to others. This appears to be in line with Tough's finding that adults are most likely to obtain information pertinent to daily life from their friends and neighbors.8

The educational model used for "Your New Life . . . Alone" has implications for other life transitions as well, such as giving up one's home in later life, adjusting to chronic or terminal illness, and dealing with the death or divorce of significant others. Extension learn-at-home programs can make it possible for friends and relatives to offer sound information, as well as social and emotional support, to those for whom they serve as informal helpers. The process just described could strengthen many vulnerable individuals who need help working through mid- and later-life transitions.

Post Script

The series "Your New Life . . . Alone" has been revised and updated since we wrote this article. For a file copy, write to "Your New Life . . . Alone," 207 Armby Building, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802.


  1. U.S., Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1982-83, CIII (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982-83), 38-41.
  2. R. A. Brandewein, C. A. Brown, and E. M. Fox, "Women and Children Last: The Social Situation of Divorced Mothers and Their Families," Journal of Marriage and the Family, XXXVI (August 1974), 498-514 and E. M. Hetherington, M. Cox, and R. Cox, "The Aftermath of Divorce," in J. H. Stevens, Jr., and M. Matthews, eds., Mother-Child, Father-Child Relations (Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1977).
  3. N. D. Colletta, "Stressful Lives: The Situation of Divorced Mothers and Their Children," Journal of Divorce, VI (Spring 1983), 20.
  4. I. Glick, R. Weiss, and C. Parkes, The First Year of Bereavement (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974); G. Hagestad and M. A. Smyer, "Dissolving Long-Term Relationships," in S. Duck, ed., Dissolving Personal Relationships (London: Academic Press, 1982); G. C. Kitson and others, "Divorcees and Widows: Similarities and Differences," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, L (No. 2, 1980), 291-301; J. B. Kohn and W. K. Kohn, The Widower(Boston: Beacon Press, 1978); H. Lopata, Women as Widows (New York: Elsevier, 1979); and M. A. Smyer and B. T. Hof land, "Divorce and Family Support in Later Life: Emerging Concerns," Journal of Family Issues, III (March 1982), 61-77.
  5. Kitson and others, "Divorcees and Widows."
  6. A. Bowling and A. Cartright, Life After a Death (London: Tavistock Publishers, 1982).
  7. D. A. Dillman, Mail and Telephone Surveys (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1978).
  8. A. Tough, Intentional Changes: A Fresh Approach To Helping People Change (Chicago: Follett, 1982).