Helping Seniors Cope with Loss
The loss of a loved-one is emotionally harrowing and difficult to navigate at any stage of life, but the process of grieving and mourning in older age can impact seniors’ mental and physical health in increasingly significant ways. An unfortunate reality that accompanies the process of growing old is the fact that death and loss of loved-ones begins to occur more and more frequently, and we must go through the bereavement process more often. Many of us are familiar with the widespread concept that grief might manifest itself in the five stages known as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance; while others prefer to describe the mourning process as one that takes the form of emotional waves that come and go. What we may be less familiar with, however, is the specific set of ways in which seniors and the elderly come to be affected by the feelings that accompany the loss of a loved-one.
Possible Implications of Greif on Physical and Emotional Health
The feelings that follow a loss can be pervasive, and can come to impact various aspects of health and lifestyle, particularly in the case of seniors. Studies have indicated that seniors’ immune systems can be meaningfully compromised when they are experiencing grief, as important white blood cells responsible for fighting off bacteria are weakened, thus making seniors in mourning more vulnerable to illnesses and infections. From a mental health perspective, depression is often a common companion of grief, and seniors may be struck by seemingly unyielding feelings of hopelessness and sadness that make participating in even the most mundane of daily tasks feel overwhelming. The following is a list of other symptoms, feelings, and experiences that may accompany a loss:
- Emotional Numbness
- Feelings of Guilt for Still Being Alive While Someone Else is No Longer Living
- Feelings of Anger Towards the Deceased for Leaving
- Trouble Sleeping
- Changes in Eating Habits (Increase or Decrease in Appetite)
- Difficulty Concentrating
In cases where the person lost is a spouse or other housemate, seniors may not only feel emotionally devastated, but may also feel completely overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed with regards to all elements of home life that were once shared with someone else.
Supporting Seniors Through Their Grief
Especially in the case of seniors, it becomes increasingly easy to surrender to grief and withdraw in ways that can only lead to further sadness and ill-health, so it is deeply important that loved-ones and caregivers provide support and encouragement in ways that provide hope and foster the maintenance of a better and more healthful life. The following are some considerations to keep in mind when attempting to help seniors cope with and adjust to the new realities that follow a loss:
- Don’t Forget The Basics: Ensure that sleeping patterns, exercise plans, eating habits, medications, medical appointments, and other basic contributors to good health are attended to and don’t become forgotten, neglected, or completely overshadowed by emotional turmoil.
- Introduce Change Slowly: If lifestyle or other changes need to be made to accommodate the loss of a close companion, make sure these changes are introduced in a gradual way to make things more manageable and less overwhelming
- Remain Connected: Rather than isolating oneself and getting entirely lost in grief, seniors should try to remain connected to the friends and family members that are still around.
- Create Healthy Distractions: Getting involved in activities, hobbies, or groups can help distract from feelings of sadness, foster connectedness, and create opportunities for positive emotions. Seniors can try volunteering, working part-time, picking up a new creative hobby, joining a class, or getting involved in an interest group.
- Consider New Forms of Companionship: While not a complete replacement for the companionship of a lost loved one, many seniors find comfort and joy in adopting a pet who can become their new companion, source of happiness, and constant friend.
- Seek Community Support: Various support groups exist in Calgary that can help seniors work through the process of bereavement in a community setting, as they share experiences and receive support from those who have shared similar experiences.
- Consider Therapy: Counselling and Therapy, whether for a short or long-term period can be greatly beneficial for seniors as they come to accept and experience their grief, and begin to consider the next steps of their lives.
The bereavement process involves many ups and downs, and emotions may change from day-to-day or even moment-to-moment. Knowing that meaningful and compassionate support is available from friends, family, community, and professional care providers can help reassure seniors that there is still room for happiness and fulfillment, even after the loss of someone deeply special.