Myths and Facts About Senior Grief
Seniors may be some of the happiest people, but that doesn’t mean old age isn’t without its many challenges. Aging comes with some of life’s greatest stresses, from failing health and waning independence to the deaths of dear friends and life partners. And while seniors are resilient, they still suffer just as deeply as younger adults. Courtesy of Dan Rhoads, here are four truths to help you understand senior grief.
Myth: Seniors move on quickly from loss because it’s an expected part of getting older.
Fact: Losing loved ones is certainly a normal part of aging. One third of adults over the age of 65 are widowed at any given time, and by the age of 85, most married people have lost a spouse. However, just because loss is common doesn’t mean it’s not just as painful. In fact, the death of a spouse is ranked as life’s number one stressor on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. And since seniors’ bodies are more sensitive to the stress hormone cortisol, the grief from losing a spouse can come with serious health consequences.
Acute grief leaves the elderly susceptible to cardiovascular problems, illnesses, and infections. And the effects aren’t limited to physical health: Acute grief can cause cognitive changes like confusion and memory loss, and some seniors experience depression alongside their grief. It also increases the risk for suicide among senior citizens, who already have one of the highest suicide rates of any demographic.
Myth: Grief is less severe when it’s preceded by a protracted illness.
Fact: When a senior cares for a spouse with a debilitating illness, grieving can begin long before the death. This is known as anticipatory grief. Since anticipatory grief can last as long as the battle with an illness like cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, it can be even more detrimental to seniors’ mental health than a sudden loss. Furthermore, anticipatory grief is often compounded with caregiver stress as the healthy spouse struggles to care for an ailing partner.
With the toll that chronic stress takes on the body and mind, it’s no wonder that 20 percent of bereaved caregivers experience complicated grief and 10 to 15 percent experience chronic depression after the death of their loved one.
Myth: Seniors who have already lost loved ones are more capable of processing grief.
Fact: The deaths of siblings, friends, adult children, and even pets can be devastating to older adults. And when those losses happen close together, there’s not enough time to resolve the emotions from each loss and grief begins to compound upon itself. This cumulative grief not only puts seniors in a state of chronic emotional overload, but it also can leave them without asocial support network. When loved ones pass away close in time to each other, there’s little opportunity to rebuild a support network before grief hits again. And without social support, resolving grief is that much harder.
Myth: Seniors need medication to get through their grief
Fact: Grief isn’t an illness that can be medicated. Rather than trying to push the emotions of grief away, seniors should be allowed to process their loss in their own way. However, sometimes grief can lead to mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. If a senior develops depression as a result of their grief, a visit to a mental health professional is warranted. However, even then, medication will not eliminate the grief; it can only eliminate the depression that is hindering healthy grieving.
While medication isn’t necessary for healthy grieving, friends and family should monitor to ensure a bereaved senior isn’t self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. A growing number of older adults abuse drugs or alcohol, and a stressful life event is often the event that triggers a late-life substance abuse problem. Not only are drugs and alcohol detrimental to senior health, but they can also hinder the grieving process.
Myth: Our environment doesn’t have all that much impact on how we feel.
Fact: While it’s obviously what happens to us that impacts us the most, our home environment in particular can be a crucial factor in how much -- or how little -- positivity and health we experience. By decluttering, cleaning, and improving our air quality, for example, we make subtle improvements in our mood that culminate in more energy to face whatever the day throws at us. That’s especially true during the grieving process, which is unfortunately when maintaining a positive home environment is most difficult.
Especially during times of grief, seniors should remember not to neglect their surroundings, or hesitate to ask for help when it comes to maintaining a home where they can rest and feel positive. For instance, if lawn care is becoming an issue, there’s no shame in hiring someone. The same goes for the before-mentioned air quality; simply search Angi for “chimney cleaning service near me” and browse the reviews to find a professional who can get the job done quickly, cheaply, and without hassle.
The death of a spouse or another loved one is an incredibly challenging time for elderly adults. Take care not to minimize the grief of the seniors in your life, and instead make time to provide support and lend a compassionate ear.
Dan Rhoads believes in offering customized investment solutions to build and protect your prosperity for a bright future. Call (484)460-3922.
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“The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory.” https://www.stress.org/holmes-rahe-stress-inventory/
“Two Big Myths about Grief.” By Hal Arkowitz, Scott O. Lilienfeld on November 1,2011. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/grief-without-tears/#
“Bereavement after Caregiving.” By Richard Schulz, PhD, Randy Hebert, MD, MPH, and Kathrin Boerner. 2009 Dec 8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2790185/
“Coping with Cumulative Losses.” By Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH. Reviewed and updated January 13, 2020. https://www.griefhealingblog.com/2013/02/coping-with-cumulative-losses.html
“Mental Health And Addiction.” March 2, 2016. https://www.drugrehab.org/mental-health-and-addiction/
“Woodburning and Particle Pollution Information.” https://www.fraqmd.org/woodburning-and-particle-pollution-information
“Top Chimney Sweeps.” https://www.angi.com/nearme/chimney-cleaning/
Author: Sara Bailey is a mother of two, a widow, and the author of an upcoming book, "Hope and Help After Loss." More can be read about her at TheWidow.net.