A senior couple sits on a hillside.

While death is natural, it doesn’t make the process of mourning a loved one any easier. Seniors who deal with the loss of a spouse — often, their life partner for 20+ years — will inevitably struggle through the situation. For caregivers, it’s important to step up, understand their feelings, and support them through their grieving. 

What they’re probably feeling

While we’re mostly taught grief comes in stages, many clinicians believe we instead experience mood swings that come and go rapidly. These will gradually decline in frequency and intensity until a level of emotional adjustment has been reached. However, grief on this scale will not only have emotional effects but also physical and psychological effects on your elderly loved one. Expect that they will have trouble sleeping, eating, and concentrating. It is also possible that they will have a hard time making decisions.

Expect them to cry easily and feel the following emotions:

  • Depressed.
  • Angry.
  • Tired.
  • Numb.
  • Shocked.
  • Fearful.
  • Guilty for being the one that’s still alive.
  • Denial or disbelief.

With mood swings, it is possible that your loved one can go from one to the next in rapid succession or even feel these emotions simultaneously.

How you can be supportive

Acknowledge the loss

Trying to avoid sadness often makes it worse; it’s important to acknowledge the sadness that your senior is feeling. When coping with grief, the first step is facing it head-on. Encouraging conversations about the loss or grieving process signals to your loved one it’s safe and even beneficial to acknowledge their sadness. This, in turn, helps them to express their grief in a healthy way.

Encourage self-care

Even when confronted with a great loss, it’s important to remember everyone still has physical needs. Seniors who have lost their spouse may need reminders about self-care and hygiene. As mentioned earlier, many seniors tend to experience physical effects as a result of their loss. Encourage them to sleep, eat, and engage in relaxing activities.

Don’t push changes right away

The grieving process is deeply personal and different for each person. Grief might not be permanent, but it’s important to remember that mourning takes time. Don’t unnecessarily push any changes on seniors right after their loss. Rather, give them the time and space to heal, process, and move forward.

Tips to remember

Watch for substance abuse

Losing a spouse is a devastatingly painful experience, and those survivors will have to learn to cope with their grief. Unfortunately, some seniors start self-medicating to numb their extreme emotions. Be sure to keep an eye on this and encourage healthy coping mechanisms.

Spend mealtimes together

Mealtimes can be particularly lonely for those seniors who have lost a spouse. A great way to help support them is to spend certain meals like dinner together, reminding them they’re not alone. Eating meals together can also help to keep your senior loved one interested in cooking and ensure their appetite is not compromised.

Anticipate changes in personality

After a spouse dies, that person’s whole life is irrevocably changed. Do not be surprised if they suddenly develop poor concentration, forgetfulness, or disorganization when they didn’t have these traits prior to the loss. These changes are usually not permanent and can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after their loss. Throughout the process, be as patient and supportive with them as possible.

Think about adopting a pet

After losing a spouse, it’s common for seniors to feel alone — especially at home. Adopting a pet or service animal for your senior can help to alleviate that sense of loneliness and give them a newfound sense of responsibility and purpose.

If you need resources to use when planning a conversation with your senior loved one regarding loss, addiction, or other struggles, visit Wellspring Center for Prevention for more information and guidance.

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