Many adult children believe that their parents will be able to take the death of a husband or wife in stride—that when death is expected, it’s not as devastating. In reality, the loss of a life partner is no less tragic at 80 than 40, and the resulting grief can lead to a cascade of health effects in bereaved seniors. Make sure you’re prepared to support a parent through the loss of a spouse by understanding all the ways that grief can impact senior health as well as what grief support is available to you and your family.
Yes, you really can die of a broken heart. In the 30 days following the death of a spouse, seniors aged 60 to 89 are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke, suffer congestive heart failure, or experience a sudden weakening of the heart known as stress cardiomyopathy. Seniors should stay alert for chest pain, shortness of breath, and other symptoms of a cardiac event in the days and weeks following the death of a spouse.
Stress is one of the greatest risk factors for depression, and according to the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, the death of a spouse is life’s most stressful event. While it’s common to experience depression in the months immediately following a partner’s death, for some seniors, the depression doesn’t go away. When depression occurs comorbid with grief, it’s even more challenging to resolve the emotions surrounding a loss.
Mood changes aren’t the only way that grief impacts mental health in seniors. Intense stress can trigger the onset of rapid cognitive decline in elderly people predisposed to memory disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists question whether increased dependence on adult children and professional caregivers following the death of a spouse contributes to higher diagnosis rates in bereaved seniors. Regardless, a growing body of evidence clearly shows the connection between traumatic life events and late-life cognitive impairment.
It’s a little-known fact that widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcohol abuse of any U.S. demographic. Addiction in seniors is frequently overlooked, whether because the symptoms of a substance abuse problem are mistaken for age-related cognitive decline, or because seniors often live isolated lifestyles with few connections outside of a husband or wife. And when that spouse dies, elderly survivors may turn to drugs and alcohol to seek relief from their grief, even if they’ve never before struggled with addiction.
However, substance abuse is more than an unhealthy coping mechanism. It can impair seniors’ cognitive functions, contribute to mood disorders, and increase the risk of a disabling fall. Seniors struggling with their grief should talk to a mental health professional to identify healthy stress-management techniques, while family members should monitor for warning signs of an emerging substance abuse problem.
Suicide is the most frightening side effect of senior grief. Suicide is often considered a problem among teens and mid-life adults, but in fact, older adults have one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S. And in the year following the death of a spouse, the risk is even higher. Depression and addiction both dramatically increase the risk of a senior committing suicide, further underlying the importance of staying vigilant about senior health in the months following the death of a spouse.
Every senior will process the death of a spouse differently. Some may carry on with ease, while others begin a sudden and sharp decline in their own health. Regardless of how a parent grieves, knowing all possible health impacts equips surviving family members to respond quickly and compassionately to the needs of an elderly loved one.
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