Spousal loss, common in older age, has been linked to negative mental health outcomes and well-being, yet the mechanisms linking spousal loss and mental health are still unclear.
To investigate whether physical activity, social support, and gender modify the psychological distress effects of marital loss among community-dwelling older persons in Ghana.
Data from a 2016/2017 Ageing, Health, Psychological Well-being, and Health-seeking Behavior Study (N = 1,200) were examined. OLS regression models examined associations between spousal loss and psychological distress outcomes and interaction terms.
Spousal loss (widowhood and divorce/separation) was associated with psychological distress (measured by the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale [KPDS-10]) for the full sample (β = .798, p < .001), women (β = .831, p < .001) and for men (β = .533, p < .05). After adjusting for potential confounders, the associations between spousal loss and psychological distress persisted for the full sample (β = .727, p < .001) and females only (β = .730, p < .001). In particular, when experiencing spousal loss, those with meaningful social support (β = −.856, p < .005) and engaged in physical activity (β = −.258, p < .001) were less likely to be psychologically distressed.
Spousal loss precipitates an independent risk of psychological distress in older age particularly among women, but social support and physical activity engagements moderate the relationship. These findings support the premise that providing opportunities to improve social support and regular physical activity may buffer the effects of psychological distress among older persons experiencing spousal loss. Providing support for older adults in times of divorce and widowhood, and working towards changes in social attitudes towards divorce are important considerations.