Clifford and Marjorie Hartland passed away on what would have been the couple’s 76th wedding anniversary. Clifford, a World War II Veteran, was 101 when he died on July 29. Marjorie, 97, passed away just 14 hours later.
Maybe you’ve heard stories like this one, of elderly couples who pass within days or even hours of each other. While the idea of it might call to mind a deep and enduring love, there is more to ‘broken heart syndrome’ than feelings of sadness.
“Death of a spouse” is listed as No. 1 on the Stress Index Scale and is considered one of life’s most devastating events.
The physical and emotional effects of losing a spouse range from trouble sleeping and lack of appetite to severe depression and an increased risk of heart failure. That’s why caring for seniors who’ve lost their spouse is so important and why we’ve designated October as Healing Hearts month at VCC. We’re raising awareness about the effects of loss on Veterans and their spouses and how home care services can help.
The Physical Toll of Losing a Spouse
In addition to debilitating grief, the stress caused from losing a spouse can lead to serious physical ailments. For the first six months following this type of loss, the risk of mortality increases by more than 40%. Within 12 months, six in 10 seniors will experience a serious illness.
Heart problems can be brought on by intense stress in a variety of situations, but there are particular heart risks associated with grief. ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’ is caused by a disruption in the blood being pumped to one section of the heart. This causes chest pain and shortness of breath, mimicking the symptoms of a heart attack.
Grief can also lower the immune system in older adults. During the grieving process, seniors are less likely to produce certain types of white blood cells, making them more prone to infections. An overwhelming amount of stress hormones are released, however, and these can cause back pain, joint pain, headaches, and stiffness.
The digestive tract can be sensitive to times of intense stress, as well. Loss of appetite, nausea, and even Irritable Bowel Syndrome are all common side effects of grief. The loss of a spouse can lead to unhealthy habits such as overeating or not eating enough, excessive drinking, smoking, drug use or other high-risk behaviors. All of these coping mechanisms can have damaging, long-lasting effects.
It’s clear that grief takes a tremendous physical toll on seniors’ wellbeing. But there is hope. With care and support, physical ailments can be minimized. Nutritious meals that include plenty of fruits and vegetables help elderly Veterans get the vitamins they need to stay healthy and fight off infections. It seems simple enough, but a grieving spouse is far less likely to prepare regular, healthy meals, much less remember to eat at all. A home care provider can help by cooking healthful meals and keeping elderly adults nourished.
Nearly 90% of adults over age 65 take at least one prescription medication. Home care providers can remind seniors to take medications, ensure they take the proper dosage, and time medication before or after meals as required.
A home care provider can also help seniors avoid unhealthy behaviors and help find more positive ways to manage their grief, such as talking, stretching or taking walks. This has the added benefit of improving mobility. And with someone to help them navigate steps, stairs, and slippery surfaces, the senior’s risk of injury is lowered. The physical manifestations of stress due to losing a spouse can be severe, but with home care services they can be managed and minimized.
The Emotional Toll of Losing a Spouse
Physical ailments aren’t the only concern of elderly adults who lose a spouse. Bereaved spouses report 20% higher levels of depression than those who are not widowed, and for the elderly, this number is even higher. Depression can affect every aspect of life, from energy level, appetite, and sleep, to a lack of interest in work, hobbies, and relationships. Depression increases the risk of cardiac disease, death from illness, and even suicide. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health considers depression in people age 65 and older a major public health problem.
As seniors age, they often face a dwindling social circle, decreased mobility, and the eventual loss of driving privileges. These alone can lead to social isolation and loneliness, which is tied to the highest levels of depression. The loss of a spouse in this scenario only increases the risks. The AARP Foundation Connect2Affect sites social isolation as a “growing health epidemic” among older adults and equates the health risks of prolonged isolation with smoking nearly a pack of cigarettes a day. We can change the paradigm by providing aging seniors with much-needed care, especially after the loss of a spouse.
Companionship is arguably one of the most important benefits a home care provider can offer. Beyond simply being present to listen or engage in activity, home care providers can help ensure seniors continue socializing and assist with activities of daily living, such as bathing, grooming, and doing laundry. The simple act of keeping their home in good working order can help improve emotional wellness. Home care providers can also offer transportation so that seniors can continue volunteering, visiting family and friends, and running routine errands such as grocery shopping, seeing the doctor, and picking up prescriptions.
The Financial Burden of Losing a Spouse
In addition to the devastating grief, and the physical and emotional toll of losing a spouse, finances can be severely impacted. A recent Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study found that just 14% of widows were making financial decisions by themselves before their spouse died. Becoming the sole financial decision-maker is the top financial challenge for nearly 70% of widows, according to the same study. What’s more, most widows lose 75% of their support base when their spouse passes away. In fact, for the past 30+ years, the rate of poverty among elderly widows is consistently three to four times higher than that of elderly married women. So, while these seniors are likely very much in need of physical and emotional care, they may not be able to afford it. Veterans and surviving spouses of a Veteran who passed away recently or many years ago, may be eligible for the VA Pension with Aid & Attendance benefit. These funds are designed to ease the financial burden of home care.
Healing Hearts Through Home Care
It’s helpful to remember that grieving is a natural process that, with care and support, leads to healing. The good news is that seniors don’t have to navigate it alone. At Veterans Care Coordination, our mission is to help Veterans and surviving spouses gain access to home care services when they need it most. We partner with quality home care providers and help to navigate the process of applying for VA Pension funds, maximize pension benefits, and get care started as quickly as possible. For more information, click here or call 855-380-4400.
If you’re a home care provider interested in partnering with VCC in our mission, click here.