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Helping Seniors Cope with the Loss of a Spouse

Bereavement can have a devastating impact on the immune systems of seniors, and may explain why many older spouses soon die after the loss of their loved ones.

Published: Mar 11, 2016

Helping Seniors Cope with the Loss of a Spouse

Bereavement can have a devastating impact on the immune systems of seniors, and may explain why many older spouses soon die after the loss of their loved ones. Studies show that one reason is that a type of white blood cell, the neutrophil, can be weakened. This white blood cell plays a critical role in fending off any invasions of bacteria or other infectious agents that could lead to serious illnesses, such as pneumonia ─ which often claims the lives of older bereaved people. 

Deep depression and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness are often a part of the grieving process, as well. It is, therefore, good to help the grieving loved one to cope during this difficult time.

For years, we’ve been told that grief comes in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Some clinicians believe that we don’t grieve in stages at all, but have mood swings that rapidly come and go. A widow or widower might feel anxious and depressed one day, and feel quite cheerful the next. Over time, those swings diminish in both frequency and intensity until a level of emotional adjustment is reached.

Grief can cause both physical and emotional pain. People who are grieving often cry easily, and can have:

  • trouble sleeping
  • little interest in food 
  • problems with concentration 
  • a hard time making decisions
  • a feeling of being numb, shocked, or fearful 
  • guilt for being the one who is still alive
  • anger at his or her spouse for leaving

The splitting of household duties is disrupted ─ and can be devastating. One person may have paid the bills, cleaned the house, and cooked the meals. The other person may have handled car and home repairs, filed income taxes, and mowed the lawn. Now one person is left alone to do it all, causing extreme stress.

Here are some helpful tips for someone who is grieving. Encourage him or her to . . .

  • Try to not make any major changes right away.
  • Try to eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep.
  • Take medicines as the doctor has ordered, and see the doctor for usual visits.
  • Talk to caring friends, or take a walk with a companion.
  • Go to the library to check out some books. 
  • Get involved! Volunteer at a local school as a tutor or playground aide; join a community exercise class or a senior swim group; be part of a chorus, bowling league, or a sewing group; sign up for bingo or bridge at a nearby recreation center. 
  • Think about having a part-time job. 
  • Offer to watch your grandchildren or a neighbor's child. 
  • Consider adopting a pet.
  • Join a grief support group. Check with hospitals, religious groups, and local government agencies to find out about support groups.
  • Seek one-to-one, short-term talk therapy with a counselor. Counseling can be particularly helpful for people whose grief has lasted a very long time, and who are likely suffering from a condition called "complicated grief."

Ideas that can help during one of the loneliest of times: mealtime. Some seniors lose interest in cooking and eating when they are alone. It may help a loved one to have a noon meal out at a senior center, a cafeteria ─ or at home with a caregiver, family, or friends. When home alone, some loved ones find that turning on a radio or TV during meals helps with loneliness.

Grief is not forever, and sometimes goes away on its own.  Remember that mourning takes time. It's common to have rollercoaster emotions for a while. Grief is a severe ─ but self-limiting ─ condition, not a permanent state. Whether a grieving senior is able to move on afterward depends on his or her own inner resources, as well the kind of support they receive from friends and family. 

Comfort Keepers® can help. Comfort Keepers®’ Interactive Caregiving™ keeps senior clients engaged physically, mentally, and emotionally while living independently at home. Our caregivers can supply valuable companionship, share cherished activities, and help support a healthy lifestyle for your loved one. Call your local office today to find out more.

References:
Independent.com/uk. “Why the Elderly Can Go Downhill, After the Loss of Their Partner” by Steve Conner. Web. 2014.
AARP. “5 Surprising Truths about Grief”. Web. 2011.
National Institutes of Health (NIH). National Institute on Aging. “Mourning the Death of a Spouse”. Web. 2016.

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