How to Care for Your Aging Loved One After the Death of a Spouse
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“We understand death for the first time when he puts his hand upon one whom we love.” – Madame de Stael
As we age, we will inevitably experience the difficult process of saying goodbye to the people we love. Grandparents and parents, sisters and brothers, friends and sometimes even children pass away, and we are left with only the memories we’ve made with them. While each loss is difficult, there are few things that hurt more than the death of the person with whom you’ve chosen to spend your life. With the death of a spouse, you’ve lost your partner, your lover, and your best friend in one fell swoop.
Spousal bereavement can be especially difficult for senior citizens for a number of reasons. In addition to the fact that many seniors have spent the majority of their lives with their spouse, the emotions triggered by the death of a loved one can be more pronounced for the aging population.
Like anyone else, a senior citizen who has just lost his or her spouse will experience a range of emotions. Throughout the mourning process, your loved one may feel angry, resentful, scared, sad, and/or numb. These feelings can manifest with changes in behavior like trouble sleeping and eating, difficulty making decisions, or loss of concentration. To make it worse, senior couples who have become one another’s primary caregivers are faced with allowing someone else to care for them and their home.
For most people, including seniors, the intensity of grief and it’s physical symptoms lessen over time. While there is no universally-accepted grieving period, feelings of sadness do eventually subside. A new normal takes hold, and the surviving spouse learns to function physically and emotionally without their spouse. For some, however, depression sets in. In this case, symptoms of grief remain.
Because seniors are already at a higher risk of becoming socially isolated, they are also more likely to experience prolonged depression after the loss of a spouse. Moreover, the associated loneliness can become a major health risk. Seniors dealing with the death of a spouse experience a higher risk of both suicide and dementia, as well as a reduced life expectancy. They can become inactive and withdrawn. They are also more likely to participate in risky health behavior, including drug and alcohol use, especially if they have a history of substance abuse or addiction.
In order to minimize these symptoms and avoid the negative consequences, it is important for the friends and family members of the surviving spouse to step in immediately. From the logistical aspects of planning a funeral to the day-to-day tasks of bathing, grooming, and taking care of oneself, a grieving widow or widower may need assistance. You should make big life changes, like moving into an assisted living facility, gradually. Many times, simply spending time with your bereaved loved one will help them form new routines not involving their late spouse and preventing them from feeling alone.
Most importantly, you should keep an eye out for symptoms of continuing grief, substance abuse, and major depressive disorder in your loved one. If you do notice signs of severe of worsening depression, you should take action immediately. Encourage your loved one to talk about their feelings with a grief support group, counselor, or pastor.
Finally, it’s worth noting that supporting a loved one isn’t easy, especially if you’re also dealing with the loss of a parent or close family member. You will likely experience the same range of emotions, and you may need to take time away from being a caregiver to focus on your own healing process. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Ed: Thank you Richard for this very useful summary of approaches to grief in older people after the death of a spouse. It’s important not just for sheer humanitarian reasons but also because unresolved grief can also lead to the death of the survivor. This Daily Mail (newspaper) article is backed up by research* and suggests the risk to be around 66% in the three months following a spousal bereavement. It’s also worth being aware of the possibility that an unexplained grief is due to the loss of someone the individual has never spoken about. A first love, perhaps, the ‘one that got away’, a same-sex relationship, a covert relationship that may or may not have been fully or partially expressed. Babyboomers are creeping into this age group and while some might be accustomed to openness about relationships, for others this might be enormously difficult. People of the WW11 era may find it almost impossible. We’re complicated folk, us humans, and we have complicated lives so we need to remember that losses may not be straightforward either. If someone is depressed and it looks like grief but there’s no obvious cause, trying carefully to understand what that might be about may be better than reaching for the antidepressants. A talking option with an appropriately trained counsellor may be a good route. As relatives, we may also need to be ready to accept the idea that there was another person in our parent’s life.
*The Effect of Widowhood on Mortality by the Causes of Death of Both Spouses