Working with seniors, I am struck by how bombarded they are with constant change: change in their environment, their relationships, and their bodies. Whether it’s retirement, a move into a senior community, bringing caregivers into the home, or the countless ways their bodies start to betray them—in reality, those changes are actually a series of very personal losses and the aging process is riddled with them. Loss of purpose, identity, independence, functionality, mobility…the list goes on. How do seniors in these circumstances cope? Is there a process to grieving an everyday loss?
Don’t Limit Grief Reactions to Death-Related Losses
In the late 1960s, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed her now famous Five Stages of Grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—to explain the process a terminally-ill patient goes through as they come to terms with their own terminal diagnosis. What most people don’t know is that she never intended these stages to explain the process of losing a loved one. These stages were actually a process for a more personal journey as we face our own death – a more personal loss.
That distinction led me to think about all the everyday personal losses seniors experience and how their response to those mirror the grief process that Kubler-Ross described. And then I read David Capuzzi, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, a grief expert and author of Human Growth and Development Across the Lifespan, who stated “In reality, people experience the same grief reactions to a variety of other transitions and losses that are not death-related.” Bingo!
But everyday transitions and losses are not generally recognized in this way. Instead, our society tends to allow grief solely in response to death—and even then, there’s a tendency to rush the process along. “Hurry up and get over it!”, “It’s time to move on!” If an elderly person doesn’t feel able to adequately grieve the passing of a loved one, what are they supposed to do when they’re struggling with everyday grief, reeling with a myriad of unaddressed feelings as they negotiate the aging process?
The Five Stages of Grief for an Everyday Loss
Let’s imagine your elderly parents are experiencing a decline of functionality. Maybe they’ve had to give up a favorite hobby—such as cooking—as a result of mobility issues. Here’s how they may exhibit the five stages of grief over this everyday loss:
- Denial. When confronted with a loss of functionality, it’s not surprising that your elderly parent may initially refuse the help they need, saying, “No, I’m fine! I can do it myself!” After all, what would it mean if they admitted to needing help? Would that mean they have to move out of their home and suffer yet another loss? It’s frightening to be so vulnerable.
- Anger. Your elderly parent may feel as though their aging bodies are betraying them, and it’s common to experience anger at that loss of control. They might look to blame others for any little upsets and say things like “It’s not fair!” Do what you can to encourage that sort of expression. The more they truly feel the anger, the sooner it will dissipate allowing them to move forward.
- Bargaining. It’s common for seniors to use negotiation to avoid grief because they are so desperate to turn back time to the way things were. They want their lives back. They want to be restored. Your elderly parents are bargaining when they say things like, “Okay, fine. Someone can come, but only for two hours per week—and I’m still going to drive!” Guilt can be a frequent companion of bargaining, along with endless “what if” statements. Those “what ifs” may cause your elderly parents to find fault in themselves and what they “should” have done differently.
- Depression. Often referred to as “anger turned inward,” depression is feeling helpless, hopeless, abandoned, and without purpose. If your elderly parents are depressed, they may seem apathetic, just waiting for death to happen, without experiencing any joy or excitement about things they once loved.
- Acceptance. When your elderly parents begin to accept their loss of functionality, they may say something like “Having some help would be good for me.” Statements like this don’t mean your parents are happy about the changes; but they do signal the initial acceptance of a new normal. Eventually, your elderly loved ones will be able to look honestly at the new reality, acknowledge the loss, and embrace the changes.
Keep in mind that these five stages are not milestones to be met on some rigid grief timeline. Instead, consider them guidelines to help you identify what your elderly parent is feeling. Capuzzi suggests there are four “basic tasks” to mourning: accept the reality of the loss, experience the pain of grief, adjust to a new reality, and let go/reinvest emotional energy. However, before attempting any of these tasks, you must first name and acknowledge the loss.
What Can You Do to Help A Senior Cope with an Everyday Loss?
Educator Parker Palmer once wrote, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed—to be seen, heard, and companioned exactly as it is.” What Palmer is describing is Acknowledgment. Acknowledgment makes things better even if they can’t be “fixed”. We can’t talk someone out of their sadness or “fix” it; what we can do is acknowledge their pain and that alone will help make things better.
- By bearing witness to and acknowledging your elderly parents’ struggles, you’ll help them adjust to a new reality, whether that’s needing some assistance in the home, downsizing to a senior community, life without the job they once held, etc. To illustrate my point, here are some of the ways you can help your elderly loved ones process everyday loss:
- Explain how life transitions can cause feelings of loss and encourage them to be gentle with themselves.
- Remind them that grieving is a process and takes time.
- Let the pain of loss exist without trying to cheer them up. Let things hurt.
- Allow them space to vent feelings of anger, sadness, frustration, etc.
- Accept the sense of profound loss and welcome it as part of the process.
- Let them know you’re sorry it’s happening and ask if they would like to talk about it.
- Admit that change is always hard.
- Encourage them to grieve in whatever way that is natural (and healthy) for them.
Remember: You don’t have to go through any of this alone. Life Care Managers can help elderly individuals and family caregivers develop awareness, connection, and acceptance of the aging process. After all, aging and change are two of life’s certainties—learning how to cope with the inevitability of them can significantly improve your quality of life and overall well-being.