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Grief: Helping Older Adults With Grief


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Key points

  • Older adults often have many major losses within a short period of time. For example, older adults who lose their spouses may suffer many losses, including financial security, their best friend, and their social contacts.
  • The natural aging process brings many losses, such as loss of beauty and physical strength.
  • Older adults may seem to overreact to a minor loss. What is considered a minor loss may bring memories and feelings about a previous greater loss.

Return to topic:

Older adults express their grief in the same ways as younger and middle-aged adults. But because of their age and other life circumstances, older adults may:

  • Experience several losses within a short period of time. Older adults are more likely than other adults to lose more than one friend or family member within a short period of time. This can cause them to grieve the losses at the same time or grieve over a long period of time. It may also cause them to feel overwhelmed, numb, or have a hard time expressing their grief.
  • Not be aware that they are grieving. Older adults experience losses related to aging. They may need to give up roles within their family. They may lose physical strength and stamina. They may feel sad and experience other signs of grieving without knowing that they are grieving.
  • Be unwilling to tell other people that they are grieving. They may also be unwilling to tell other people how sad they feel when they see or care for older loved ones who are ill or aging.
  • Have long-term illnesses, including physical and mental disabilities, that interfere with their ability to grieve.
  • Lack the support system that they had in the past. Older adults who depended on their spouses or other family members for social contact may lack a support system after their spouses die or other family members move away or die. These older adults may feel lonely and think that they have no one to confide in.

Test Your Knowledge

Older adults express their grief in the same ways as other adults.

True
False

Older adults are very willing to tell other people that they are grieving.

True
False

Older adults are more likely to become physically ill after experiencing a major loss. They may already have long-term physical illnesses or other conditions that interfere with their ability to grieve. The symptoms of these illnesses may become worse when they are grieving.

Some older adults may develop unresolved grief or complications associated with grieving. This may occur more often in older adults because they are more likely to experience:

  • Many major losses within a short period of time.
  • The death of their friends, including their spouses. Older adults who lose their spouses may suffer many losses, including financial security, their best friend, and their social contacts.
  • Losses that occur as a part of the natural aging process, such as loss of beauty and physical strength.
  • Loss of their independence or the development of illness and other conditions that are common in older adults.
  • Anticipation of losing someone or something special to them.

In addition, some older adults need more time than other people to adjust to change. Adjusting to change may be hard for them and cause them added emotional stress.

Test Your Knowledge

Older adults have a lot of experience with loss, so they grieve less than other adults.

True
False

Older adults often become physically ill after a major loss.

True
False

Ways you can help an older adult who is grieving include:

  • Giving the person time. Sometimes older adults need more time to become aware of their feelings and express them. Sometimes they need more time to complete other activities as well. Giving an older person extra time shows that you are concerned and respectful of the person's needs.
  • Pointing out signs of sadness or changes in behavior. This may help the person become aware of his or her feelings and may help the person feel more comfortable talking with you about how he or she feels.
  • Spending time with the person. An older adult who often seems to be alone can benefit from your company. Invite him or her to go for a walk or have a cup of coffee. Feelings of loneliness may last for a long time when an older adult has lost something or someone special, especially a spouse.
  • Talking about the loss. Ask the person to talk about his or her loss. Older people, especially those who have experienced several losses over a short period of time, are often helped by sharing memories of the lost person.
  • Watching for signs of prolonged grieving or depression. If you have concerns that an older adult is having difficulty working through his or her grieving, talk with a health professional.

Older adults often have more than one loss to deal with at a time. Talking about each separate loss may help identify the person's feelings. Separating losses from one another may also help the person feel less overwhelmed and more able to cope with emotional distress.

Test Your Knowledge

I can help an older adult who is grieving by:

Telling the person that feelings are not important and that he or she should just think about something else.
Asking the person to tell me about the loss (person, object, or situation).
Reminding the person that we all get old.
Making the person stay very busy.

Now that you have read this information, you are ready to help an older adult who is grieving.

Talk with a health professional

If you have questions about this information, take it with you when you visit your health professional. You may want to use a highlighter to mark areas or make notes in the margins of the pages where you have questions.

If you would like more information on helping an older adult who is grieving, the following resources are available:

Organizations

Caring Connections
Phone: 1-800-658-8898 help line
Phone: 1-877-658-8896 multilingual line (toll-free)
Phone: (703) 837-1500
Email: caringinfo@nhpco.org
Web Address: www.caringinfo.org

Caring Connections, a program of the U.S. National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), seeks to improve care at the end of life. Caring Connections provides free resources, including educational brochures, advance directives and hospice information, and a toll-free help line for people looking for quality end-of-life information.


Mental Health America
2000 North Beauregard Street, 6th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
Phone: 1-800-969-NMHA (1-800-969-6642) referral service for help with depression
(703) 684-7722
Fax: (703) 684-5968
TDD: 1-800-969-6642
Web Address: www.mentalhealthamerica.net

Mental Health America (formerly known as the National Mental Health Association) is a nonprofit agency devoted to helping people of all ages live mentally healthier lives. Its Web site has information about mental health conditions. It also addresses issues such as grief, stress, bullying, and more. It includes a confidential depression screening test for anyone who would like to take it. The short test may help you decide whether your symptoms are related to depression.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAnne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerSidney Zisook, MD - Psychiatry
Last RevisedOctober 17, 2011

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