JD Conger told everyone he couldn't live without his wife, Opal.
He took care of her as her dementia deepened and she slowly faded. But even during her last difficult year, they relied on each other: Frail as she was, she translated the world for him, making up for his failing eyes and ears.
When Opal Conger died at age 97 on the morning of Jan. 13, they had been husband and wife for 81 years, spending their last few at a senior living center in Carmichael, Calif. The Congers' devotion was clearly an unbreakable bond.
And so JD followed Opal into death just after dawn not 48 hours after she died. He was 101 and he was true to his word.
"He was not going to be here without her," said the Congers' granddaughter, Sue Seaters, 55, a public health nurse in Placer County, Calif. She sat by his bedside in his final hours. "He went to bed and didn't get up."
Researchers have a name for the increased probability of death among grieving mates within weeks or months of their spouses' passing: the "widowhood effect."
Among elderly couples, according to Harvard University sociologists, men are 22 percent more likely to die shortly after the death of a spouse, compared with 17 percent for women.
And a National Institute on Aging study found that race plays a part in the widowhood effect, with white partners aged 67 or older more likely than elderly African Americans to succumb early in bereavement.
Findings on the widowhood effect don't come as news to medical professionals, who have observed similar patterns of increased mortality.
"We've all had experiences with this kind of thing," said Trish Caputo, a nurse and bereavement coordinator at Sutter Auburn Faith Hospice in Auburn, Calif. "Often, it's unrelated to any accident or cardiovascular incident. ... That can be part of the stress reaction to grief.
"I've had at least three bereaved spouses who've fractured a hip within a week of their loved one's death, one at the funeral of the spouse."
Complicating the fog of grief is the fact that elderly care giving spouses are at a 63 percent greater risk of death than older people not caring for their mates, according to American Medical Association research.
Traditional gender roles play a part in the widowhood effect, too: While women seek connection -- a trait that serves them well after a spouse's death -- men's drive for independence can leave them isolated and lonely, said Barbara Gillogly, gerontology department chair at American River College in Sacramento.
"It's just the difference between men and women and how we're socialized. Connection helps us negotiate old age. Independence does not do us well," she said. With the death of J.D. Conger's wife, he may have lost interest in living. "His job was done."
"They were so attached to each other," said Virginia Stone, marketing director at Carmichael Oaks Senior Living, where the Congers lived for the past few years. "One of the things JD said when she passed was, 'How can I go on without her?' "
(Contact Anita Creamer at acreamer(at)sacbee.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)