Promoting Well-being in Seniors after the Loss of a Spouse

Seniors and Grief

Whether it was an expected loss after a prolonged illness or the result of an unexpected event, losing a spouse is an incredibly difficult experience. As we grow older, the chances of that experience increase with each passing year. Unfortunately, seniors are the ones most affected by this kind of loss.

A 2014 study composed by researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK found that the impact of grief greatly affects the function of white blood cells — specifically neutrophils, the type of white blood cells that are responsible for combating infection. Diminished neutrophil function in seniors leads to a weakened immune system and increased chance of infection. Furthermore, there is a slightly increased risk of heart attack or stroke after the loss of a spouse due to the damage emotional stress has on the sympathetic nervous system, thus putting overall wellness at risk.

Grief and Emotion

In addition to the physical health risks, when a senior loved one loses their spouse you’re likely to notice common behaviors and emotions that are a part of the grieving process. Despite the commonly referenced stages of grief, there is no single or right way for people to experience the loss of a loved one.

They may seem overwhelmed and stressed or depressed and helpless. Some people even experience extreme mood swings and can seem serene and accepting one day then angry and hurt the next. These emotions can become even more complicated if the loss was a result of drug or alcohol abuse and addiction.

No matter how they act, it’s important to be there for them during this time. Providing emotional support for a grieving senior helps them get through a difficult time while decreasing their chances of falling seriously ill.

Supporting a Senior While Grieving the Loss of Their Spouse

Immediately after a death, people from all over show up out of nowhere offering food, support, stories, and whatever else they can give to the ones the deceased left behind. However, once the services are completed and the funeral is over, that’s when the reality sets in for the partner or spouse. While everyone else goes back to their normal lives, the world of the survivors is permanently changed without their loved one. This the time when it’s imperative that you’re there for your senior friend or family member to help them adjust and see to their needs.

● Volunteer to drive and accompany them to doctor appointments. Help them schedule a check-up a few weeks after the loss to monitor their heart health and detect infection.

● Make calendar reminders on important dates such as the deceased’s birthday or their anniversary. Call them to check in or make plans to do something together if they’re up to it.

● Help them identify personal rituals that allow them to experience grief while regaining a sense of control.

● Be flexible. They may make plans in an attempt to get back to normal, but by the time the date rolls around they find they’re not ready. Anticipate these changes and be okay with spending the day at their place instead.

● Watch out for unhealthy coping behaviors like oversleeping or abusing drugs and alcohol. If you notice these kinds of behaviors, talk to them with compassion instead of coming to them with accusations.

● Help them find a grief support group through their hospital, church, or community center where they can connect with others going through the same difficult situation.

● Grieving people often neglect to eat. Take them out to their favorite restaurant or drop by with a meal they like so they can keep their strength up.

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Losing a spouse is one of the most harrowing experiences someone can endure. While it’s emotionally traumatizing for everybody, it can also be physically damaging for seniors. People over the age of 65 are more likely to suffer from infection or heart complications while grieving. It’s important to be there for them in order to support them emotionally and monitor their overall health.