Helping Older Adults Deal With Life Changing Events
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Life-changing events, such as the death of a loved one, newly diagnosed health problems, and job loss, can happen at any age. However, as people age, these events become more common. Grief is a normal, healthy response to loss, but over time it can take a toll on emotional and mental health, and may even lead to depression. If you’re a caregiver or if you spend time with an older adult, learn how to help your loved one cope with loss.
Learn about the grieving process. Read “Grieving: Facing Illness, Death, and Other Losses” to learn about the common physical and emotional symptoms of grief. It’s important to remember that there is no “right” way to grieve. Everyone is different, and every loss is different. Allow your loved one the time and space to grieve in their own way.
Listen. The most important thing you can do is listen. You might not know what to say to comfort your loved one. That’s okay. Your loved one may just need someone to talk to about their feelings. If you’re nervous or uncomfortable, try to remember the following tips:
- If your loved one is grieving the death of a friend or family member, don’t be afraid to talk about the person who died. This may help your loved one feel less alone in the loss.
- Try to avoid saying things like, “I know how you feel,” or, “It’s all for the better.” This minimizes your loved one’s feelings and may make him or her withdraw. Remember, because the grieving process is different for every person, you probably do not know how your loved one is feeling. Instead, say things like, “I know this must be difficult,” or, “You don’t have to be so strong,” to help draw out your loved one’s feelings.
- Sometimes, just sitting with the person is enough. Your loved one may not want to talk, but they also may not want to be alone. It’s okay to spend time together not talking.
Offer your help. The feelings of grief and loss can be overwhelming and may make even small tasks seem draining. Don’t wait for your loved one to ask for help. Instead, offer to make dinner, pick up some groceries or a prescription, or do some of the household chores. Your loved one is more likely to accept your help if you make a specific offer, instead of saying “Let me know how I can help.”
Learn the warning signs of depression. The symptoms of grief and the symptoms of depression are quite similar. While it’s normal for a person to feel sad after a loss, the feelings associated with grief should be temporary. Your loved one may be depressed if:
- They don’t begin to feel better as time passes
- Their emotions start to get in the way of completing routine, daily tasks
- They no longer take pleasure in favorite activities
- They mention or have thoughts of suicide
If you notice any of these signs, contact your loved one’s family healthcare provider. The healthcare provider can help treat the depression so your loved one can start to feel better.
Coping with bereavement by Mental Health America (04/12/12, http://www.nmha.org/index.cfm?objectid=C7DF9618-1372-4D20-C807F41CB3E97654)
A LifeCare Guide to Helping Others Cope With Grief (PDF) by LifeCare (04/12/12, http://www.foh.dhhs.gov/NYCU/CopingTips.pdf)