Grief is a complicated emotion and one that everyone experiences differently. While some seniors recover quickly after the death of a spouse, others may get lost in their grief. When grief becomes prolonged, it can lead to depression, addiction, suicide, or other health issues among the elderly.
Grief alone can cause health concerns for seniors who have lost a spouse. Symptoms include difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, fatigue, aches and pains, and memory and concentration problems. However, these symptoms are normal and typically fade as the acute stage of grief passes.
When the symptoms of grief don’t lessen over time, it’s known as complicated grief. Grief is considered complicated when the acute symptoms of bereavement persist beyond 6 months after the loss. If a senior continues to have trouble managing personal care and other demands of everyday life, it can result in serious health problems that reduce the length and quality of their life.
Beyond physical complications, complicated grief comes with a number of psychological side effects. Bereaved seniors experience intense longing for their loves ones, preoccupation with thoughts of their deceased partner or the death itself, a loss of motivation, and feelings of numbness and lack of enjoyment in life.
While complicated grief and depression aren’t the same thing, they often go hand-in-hand. Depression can be triggered by chronic stress, and a person experiencing prolonged grief is under a high level of stress for months to years on end. When complicated grief is co-morbid with depression, the bereaved may also experience feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, or worthlessness. For some, it can lead to suicidal ideations and attempts.
Treating complicated grief and co-morbid depression is particularly challenging among the elderly. Older adults tend to live a more isolated lifestyle with few companions who are aware of their day-to-day well-being. Seniors may not be as open to mental health treatment as younger generations, and could be hesitant to admit they have a problem at all.
Unfortunately, these challenges mean that some seniors turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with their emotions. For some, the death of a spouse triggers a substance abuse problem. While some people may feel that an older adult “deserves” to drink or use drugs as they wish, the reality is that substance abuse can dramatically reduce a senior’s quality of life.
While abusing drugs and alcohol is harmful to people of all ages, it’s especially concerning among senior citizens. As people age, their body loses its ability to metabolize drugs and alcohol. This means that seniors not only become intoxicated more easily, but their body is more susceptible to damage from substance abuse. Furthermore, intoxication leaves the elderly prone to falls and accidents that can cause permanent, life-altering disability or even death.
Since the signs of substance abuse can easily be confused for symptoms of age-related decline, addiction among the elderly is often overlooked. Unexplained bumps and bruises are attributed to poor balance with age, while irritability and memory loss are chalked up to cognitive decline and “senior moments.” But if seniors are to recover from grief and depression, substance problems need to be detected and treated.
The best way to stay aware of health problems in the elderly is to be an active participant in their lives. Visit regularly with bereaved family members to provide social support and monitor for behavior changes. If you suspect a senior is struggling to cope with their grief, or that they’re using substances to deal with their trauma, ask questions about their habits and encourage them to speak openly with their doctor. With active involvement from loved ones and proactive care, seniors can overcome their grief and enjoy their twilight years to the fullest.
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