Losing a spouse is one of the most difficult things a person can go through in their life. If you have a senior friend or loved one who recently experienced the loss of a spouse, you may notice they seem depressed, overwhelmed or helpless. While these emotions are a normal part of the grieving process, it’s still important for you to be there for them. Your emotional support can help them cope and get through a difficult time where they are not only emotionally distressed, but also at risk of illness.
For seniors, the shock of bereavement can do significant damage to their overall wellness. A 2014 study found that grief affects the function of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that is responsible for combating infection in the body. Seniors were found to have diminished neutrophil function or a weakened immune system than their younger counterparts. They also had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate (DHEAS).
The Stages of Grief
Some reports say that grief comes in five stages:
However, modern doctors and researchers maintain that this is incorrect. The truth is, grief is not simple. No two people experience the loss of a loved one in the same way and these emotions cannot be categorized into a linear sequence. Rather people experience grief in waves or mood swings that can last minutes, hours, or even days where they waiver between feeling fine and undergoing the extreme symptoms that come with loss.
The symptoms of grief are not simply crying, but the emotions are felt both physically and emotionally. A person who just lost a spouse may feel numb, shocked or afraid of the future. They may feel guilty for being the one that is still alive or angry that their spouse is now gone. They may begin to have issues sleeping, eating and concentrating.
How to Help a Grieving Senior
While you certainly want to be there for your friend or loved one during the time directly after the loss of their spouse, that is actually the time you are least needed. Friends and family pop out of the woodwork to lend a helping hand right after the tragedy, but once the services are over, everyone else goes back to their normal lives while the husband or wife must learn to live in a world without their other half. That’s when they need you the most.
When your loved one is experiencing grief, it can be consuming, with basic needs and overall wellness becoming the lowest priority. Make sure they are eating enough (but not too much) and getting enough sleep each night. Intense grief also impairs mental health, as the accompanying feelings of depression lower the feel-good neurotransmitters, resulting in changes in mood and even an increased sensitivity to aches and pains. Low-impact exercise, such as Pilates, is a great way for your senior to stretch, socialize, and work through those aging pains. Plus, Pilates focuses on mindful movement, which can help them realize the potential of both their body and mind.
Here are some helpful ways you can help a senior dealing with the loss of a spouse.
- Be available, but also understand if they decide to cancel standing dates every so often.
- Encourage them to stay as close to their normal routine as possible and to not make any major changes overnight.
- Make sure they do not turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. If they want a healthy way to feel better, exercise is a natural mood enhancer and that it can ease symptoms of depression.
- Monitor their medications and make sure they are taking them.
- Join them on low-pressure outings such as going to the library or seeing a movie.
- Go to a grief support group with them. Hospitals, churches, and community centers are great resources.
- Allow them to talk about their feelings and actively listen.
- Mark down important dates like their spouse’s birthday and anniversary. Offer to spend those special dates together. If they would rather be alone, at least call them and check in.
- Take them out for a good meal. Grieving people often neglect to eat.
By being there for your senior loved one, you are providing support that helps them get to a healthy place. Recognize that grief is not a five step process that is the same for everybody. Their bereavement may sometimes seem erratic or irrational, but you can be a soothing presence that brings them back to reality. Be available for standing dates, but also understand if they cancel. Help them feel supported while also encouraging them to get back into their normal routine. While a person never really quits grieving the loss of a spouse, it does get easier with time and life eventually begins to feel normal again.
About the author: After overcoming breast cancer at age 60, Hazel vowed to never waste another second. Every day, she challenges herself to live life to the fullest, and to inspire other folks her age to do so as well. Ms. Bridges is the creator of AgingWellness.org, which aims to provide health and wellness resources for aging seniors.