How does grief affect older adults?

Ken Druck, PhD

Grief and loss have a profound effect on older adults -- and may be a bigger part of their daily lives that we have been willing or able to understand. Not only are they coping with the decline and death of family members and close friends, they themselves are probably experiencing a variety of "living losses" associated with changes in identity, status, relationships, lifestyle, independence and energy.  

How older adults cope with the feelings of sorrow, anger, loneliness, confusion and despair that accompany grief, and their own mortality, depends on their skills and willingness to process emotions.  Older adults who have learned how to communicate what they feel and need, who have the freedom and permission to vent their deepest emotions and who have cultivated an attitude of acceptance, humiity, peace and faith over time, will do better. Those who have spent a lifetime hiding, denying, repressing, numbing and dumbing down as a means of coping with grief, will struggle. Just as the benefits of learning to cope (and a healthy dose of irreverence) pay off as we grow older, the debt of lifelong avoidance comes due.  

Whether older adults have the ability to turn grief into an opportunity for personal and spiritual deepening, come to terms with life as it really is and renew their sense of purpose for living also depends on the support they have in their lives.  Whether they live alone, in a retirement community or with family members, older adults who have trustworthy, non-judgmental and empathetic people to talk to deal better with adversity.  

I'm blessed to be able to meet every month with elderly adults between 80 and 103 at my own mother's retirement community where I have instituted an education series on coping with life in the later years.  We have made it safe for these men and women to uncover the bare truth about the grief and loss, as well as the joy and peace they experience.  These meetings are packed with residents who embrace the opportunity to speak their hearts and minds.  Their adult children have begun to attend as well.  We deal with every imaginable issue associated with being an older adult. There is laughter and tears, revelation and mystery.  And when the program for that evening is over, we all leave a little lighter, smarter and more at peace with ourselves and with this crazy life.

Although people experience losses at every age, the toll mounts as one grows older. As friends and relatives die off, the possibility of a numbing grief overload arises. This is particularly common in nursing homes and assisted living facilities where residents are often ill and frail. Depression is another possibility after bereavement, especially after experiencing several losses. When depression strikes older people, though, its signs are sometimes brushed off as the result of cognitive or age-related changes. It's a worrisome fact that suicide risk spikes in older adults, especially among men.

Yet researchers who study grief in older people also note certain advantages among people in this age group. Tempestuous emotions tend to be damped down, and it's less common for people to respond excitably to worries. Interestingly, research suggests that older adults also have a less intense physiological response to upsetting events. In addition, some experts note that people develop better coping strategies as life progresses. One study found that older people were more likely than younger ones to seek comforting meaning in a death and to share this with others.

Almost one in 10 people over 65 has lost a sibling during the previous year. If you have lost a sibling, you may feel more vulnerable and less resilient. However, it may also strengthen your ties to other siblings.

When a longtime spouse or companion dies, the loss may feel enormous. People who spend many years together develop their own emotional shorthand, language, distinctive roles, and observances. This happens whether or not the relationship is a happy one. When your spouse or partner dies, your identity as half of a couple evaporates. You may fit less easily into the lives of friends and be forced to pick up new skills your partner once supplied. Along with the grief this causes, there may be opportunities for growth and fulfillment.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.