December 16, 2017 Brigitte Ganger

Caring for the Elderly Griever

How to spot complicated grief in the elderly, and help them cope

Caring for the Elderly Griever
Elderly folks are at an increased risk of feelings of isolation and loneliness. Know the signs, and learn to support your elderly loved one through grief. (Shutterstock)

Losing a loved one is a painful and confusing experience for folks of any age. Coping with a significant loss takes time, as well as emotional effort, in order to return to some semblance of "normal." When it comes to the elderly, the impact of a loss can be sharper and more debilitating than in any other demographic. Though studies have shown most elderly folks are mentally resilient to the negative effects associated with aging, they are at a higher risk of experiencing depression, and suicidal thoughts.


Considering the fact that the elderly are in a high-risk demographic for increased feelings of isolation, despondency and depression, the additional stress of grief is cause for concern. As the caregiver, friend, or support person of an elderly person, you should keep an eye on their progress through a significant loss.


Signs that extra care may be required


Every person expresses grief and distress differently. It may not be immediately apparent when an elderly person is in need of extra care due to a loss. Here are some signs that can indicate an elderly person is struggling with complex grief. 


1. A sudden decline in physical health


Elevated stress will leave anyone open to increased instances of common colds, infections and general aches and pains. Because many elderly people have lowered or compromised immune systems, these types of regular ailments can escalate if not monitored. 


2. Loss of appetite


Lost appetite can be a sign of an underlying health issue, or of depression. When elderly people don't eat, they don't receive the nutrition required to maintain good physical or mental health. Skipping meals, or neglecting to eat enough healthy food can be cause for concern.


3. Onset of confusion or cognitive difficulty 


Most grieving people experience some memory loss. Being unable to recall events during the first days or weeks following a loss is 100% normal, in anyone. It is a response to trauma that helps us survive emotional turmoil. However, if an elderly person is displaying signs of confusion beyond the simple forgetfulness of being overwhelmed, it may be a sign that they need help. Elderly people are at risk of experiencing dementia or Alzheimer's, and sudden grief can exacerbate those symptoms. 


4. Loss of energy


Loss of energy is another common symptom of grief in folks of any age, but unwillingness to engage in activities they normally enjoy can be a sign of depression. Elderly people who avoid going out, socializing or taking part in leisure activities after a loss has occurred may need extra care as they navigate their grief. Be careful about jumping to conclusions, however—if the person did not exhibit this kind of energy prior to the loss, it is probably unrelated.


5. Increased feelings of loneliness and isolation


The sad reality for many elderly folks is that their friends are dying at a higher rate than ever before. It is difficult to lose any person close to you, but it's a whole other kind of grief to lose several loved ones in a relatively short period of time. It is a constant reminder of their own mortality, and the inevitable loneliness that comes later in the golden years.


Ways to show you care


There are several ways that you can help elderly folks cope with their pain, and move on. Overcoming grief is a slow and non-linear process for people of any age. However, these simple gestures can help remind your elderly loved one that life is ongoing—even in grief.


1. Spend time with them


Reading books, watching TV or simply visiting with you grieving loved one can remind them that they are not alone. Engage with them in their hobbies to show how fun and interesting life still is. Having good company is the obvious and most direct way of avoiding loneliness. 


2. Help them with errands


If the loss has left the grieving person with an emptier home than normal, try to offer assistance with household tasks. Laundry, appointments, medication dosage, and cleaning are all tasks your elderly loved one might appreciate help with. 


3. Help with meals


Meal planning and preparation can be one of the biggest obstacles to an elderly griever getting nourishment. If you are able, help them plan meals, get groceries, or even prepare easy meals that they can easily heat up.


4. Take them out 


Mobility can be a barrier to elderly folks going out and engaging with the world. A change of atmosphere can make a world of difference. Going to the park, casino, a restaurant, or to another city will inject a bit of adventure into a time of grief. 


Most importantly, maintain your support in the long term. Elderly people sometimes require care often, and may be unable to perform day-to-day tasks with as much ease as they used to. Offer your support continually to help them cope with the pain of loss. 

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