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Grief and Loneliness in the Aged

A deadly duo

Betty Davis, a 20th Century actress, is credited with having said, “old age ain’t no place for sissies.” Of course, there are all the physical changes that happen when we are older. Our hearing and vision are usually compromised to some degree. There are aches and pains, arthritis, lack of mobility, memory changes, incontinence, cardiac issues and a myriad of other potential health problems. Adapting to all the physical changes is challenging enough, but there are also the emotional issues associated with aging. Two of the most detrimental to our well-being are grief and loneliness, both of which can contribute to further declines in health and quality of life.

Huy Phan/Unsplash
Source: Huy Phan/Unsplash

By the time a person has reached their upper 80’s and 90’s, they are likely to have experienced many deaths throughout their lifetime. The longer we live, the more losses we will experience. There are many things the aged grieve: the loss of family, friends, and pets. We miss them and the connection we used to feel for them. These are fertile ground for loneliness. Those who lose a spouse at this time in their life are particularly vulnerable to dying from a cardiac event. [1] Grief can also be associated with the loss of self and the person we use to be. Even if we are fortunate to have family around us, we can still mourn the loss of those our own age that knew us and understood us. Some friends may still be alive but may also be compromised physically and mentally such that it is difficult to maintain our connection with them.

Research has shown us that grief and loneliness impact the body of the elderly differently than younger people. While stress can be experienced at all ages, it has been demonstrated that stress in the aged can lead to a decrease in the functioning of the immune system, making them more vulnerable to infection and disease. [2] What could be more stressful than losing a loved one and being lonely? Grief and loneliness can impact mortality. There are many similarities between grief and loneliness which impact our physical and mental well-being. For example, both can lead to being more susceptible to heart disease, stroke and a higher chance of developing Alzheimer as well as also leading to depression, anxiety and fearfulness. [3]

Recently, much attention has been focused around the world on the problem of loneliness across the life span. However, being lonely in your 20’s or even 50’s is very different from being lonely in your 90’s. When we are younger, there is always hope and the potential for change. When people address senior loneliness, the recommendations seem to be directed toward the younger seniors who can more easily take an active role in addressing the problem. While joining groups, volunteering, exercising, taking lessons and classes are all good ideas for socialization; they are not always possible for the elderly. For the aged, one of the biggest roadblocks to socialization is their lack of mobility and freedom.

Typically, the older we get the less contact we are likely to have with others. For many, television is their primary companion. However, there are programs and services for the elderly on a national, state, and local level that can help keep them connected. Organizations such as the Council on Aging, Catholic Charities, or Jewish Family Services to name a few have many programs for the elderly. They range from in-home homemakers, phone buddies, meals on wheels, and grief counseling. Transportation can be provided to Senior Centers where the more mobile can engage in activities with others. Many agencies have staff that can assist in providing resources and other information for the elderly. There are also advancements being made in the area of virtual assistants such as Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa, as well as robotic companions, that can provide a “listening ear” and connection with the outside world.

While most of us do not like to think about ourselves or our loved ones getting old and needing help, it is useful to explore options ahead of time so as not to be caught in a crisis. Many elderly say they hunger for meaningful conversations with someone. This is often hard to achieve. Family members may stop by but have busy schedules taking care of work and other family members. They come to check on the basic needs but often do not have time to sit and visit. Elders say they want to engage in conversations other than about their health or if they are taking their medications. This can be an opportunity to have them talk about their lives and impart their wisdom to the listener. I frequently hear from the deceased’s family members that they wish they had asked more questions while they had the chance and regret the lost opportunities. Knowing that someone will come on a regular basis to talk with them gives the aged something to look forward to and breaks up their monotony. Including them in family events and holidays, taking them out to eat, are other ways to alleviate their loneliness. The important thing to keep in mind is to remember the elderly, staying connected and spending time with them can enrich their lives as well as yours.



[2] Vitlic, Anna, Khanfer, Riyad, Lord, Janet M. Carroll, Douglas and Phillips, Anna. (2014). Immunity and Aging. 11:13

[3] Wilson, R.S., Krueger, K.R., Arnold, S.E., Schneider, J.A., Kelly, J.F., Barnes, l.l., Tang, Y. and Bennett, D.A. (2007). Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer Disease. Archives General Psychiatry. Feb;64(2): 234-240

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