Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Bereavement Complications in the Elderly | How to Help a Loved One Recover

Contributed by Jim Vogel

According to Mayo Clinic staff, grief can take a toll on your physical and mental health as well as your social life. Senior citizens may have more trouble recovering from complications associated with bereavement. Approximately 20 percent of the 20 million widows in the United States suffer long-term effects after losing a spouse. These include depression, diminished immune system, sudden disinterest in friends and family, and drug and alcohol use.

Symptoms of grief

It can take up to four years for a senior to fully recover from the loss of a lifelong partner. Signs that grief has lingered or has expanded beyond healthy levels include:

      Pain and sorrow when thinking of a loved one
      Inability to focus on events not surrounding the death
      Persistent pining for the deceased
      Numbness and detachment
      Inability to trust others
      Unwillingness to partake in positive experiences with surviving friends and family
      Failure to fully accept the loss

Without treatment, grief may lead to life-changing problems including:

      Anxiety
      Depression
      Fixation on suicide
      Elevated risk of physical illness including high blood pressure, cancer, and heart disease
      Insomnia
      Substance abuse
      Unhealthy habits including cigarette smoking and alcohol use
      Weight loss/weight gain
      Intense feeling of hopelessness


New life after death

People over the age of 60 are typically comfortable with their lifestyle and daily routine. The death of a spouse completely interrupts this rhythm. As a caregiver, one of your primary goals is to help your loved one find a new normal. It isn’t easy but it is possible. Widow and Sixty+Me contributor Yvonne Broady lost her husband to stage IV cancer after decades of marriage. She suggests counseling, whether individual or in a group setting -- you can set the sessions up for your loved one if they are willing. Help them remain connected with friends and family and to define new goals for themselves.
Another way to help ease the grieving process is to honor the loved one’s spouse. Suggestions that you can offer include raising money for a charity that their spouse supported, or turning their shirts into a quilt.

One of the most important things you can do for an elderly family member after the loss of a spouse is to give them your time. Like anyone else, the elderly need a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear to help validate their emotions. Additionally, you can encourage positive behaviors such as maintaining an active lifestyle, eating plenty of nutritious foods, and remaining current on health screenings and immunizations.

Alzheimer’s sufferers and grief

The way seniors with Alzheimer’s grieve can be particularly challenging, because their emotions may vary day by day, and they may forget that their loved one has passed away. Therefore, caregivers often struggle with communicating about death to seniors with this disease. Caregivers must understand that every individual with Alzheimer’s Disease is unique based on the progression of the disease and the senior’s own personality and behavior. Fortunately, Neptune Society released a comprehensive list of resources that detail the stages of grief and suggest ways to guide seniors with Alzheimer’s through the process.

Drug abuse and seniors

Bonnie S. Wiese, MD, MA, FRCPC authored a white paper published in the BC Medical Journal in 2011 citing depression as the most common mental health problem in the elderly. It is well accepted that depression may lead to drug use and abuse, regardless of an individual’s age. Geriatric substance abuse is an increasingly common problem in the United States with abusing seniors preferring alcohol, cannabis, and prescription medications to quell their emotional upheaval. The Clinics in Geriatric Medicine report that a growing population of baby boomers turning 65 in recent years has given rise to higher numbers of seniors turning to alcohol and other drugs.

Seniors leaning on alcohol or drugs may exhibit many of the same symptoms as younger people. These include:

      Increased aggression
      Personality changes
      Constant lethargy
      Financial problems/sudden mismanagement of money
      Lying to their doctor about pain
      Receiving prescriptions from multiple physicians
      Abrupt weight changes
      Unwillingness to discuss drug use


If you suspect a parent or elderly loved one of using or abusing drugs, it’s important to open up a frank conversation without passing judgment. Remind them they are not alone and seek the services of a certified drug treatment center or a mental health clinic. The loss of a spouse does not have to be the end of the surviving partner’s life. With help, understanding, and a continuing network of care, your loved one can continue to lead a healthy, active, and productive life.