Losing a spouse changes the life that a person knows. What was normal is no longer an option. “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. We’re raising awareness about the effects of loss on Veterans and their spouses and how home care services can help.
Grieving the loss of a loved one can be especially hard during COVID-19. Due to physical distancing guidelines, visits may have been limited prior to the loved one’s death. A traditional funeral service may not have been possible. Family and friends could not gather traditionally. These changes can compound grief. To help, look for ways to help the survivor to honor the person they lost. Finding a new normal does not mean forgetting that person. In the absence of the traditional passing of a person, create ways to remember and acknowledge the person’s many contributions. One way is to have a memorial service on the first anniversary. This memorial can be a time to celebrate that person with stories and memories, bringing closure for the survivor.
The Physical Toll of Losing a Spouse
In addition to grief, the stress caused by losing a spouse can lead to serious physical ailments. Grief can also lower the immune system in older adults. An overwhelming amount of stress hormones are released, and these can cause a variety of illnesses.
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. Grief takes a tremendous physical toll on seniors’ well-being. But there is hope. With care and support, physical ailments can be minimized. Nutritious meals that include plenty of fruits and vegetables help 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, nutritious 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 help to remind seniors to take their medications. A home care provider can also help seniors avoid unhealthy behaviors and help find more positive ways to manage their grief, such as talking, engaging in a hobby, 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 Emotional Toll of Losing a Spouse
Physical ailments are not the only concern of elderly adults who lose a loved one. Those grieving report 20% higher depression levels 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. 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. It equates the health risks of prolonged isolation with smoking nearly a pack of cigarettes a day. With the current pandemic, this has only intensified. 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 assisting with daily living activities, 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
Along with the physical and emotional effects of grief, finances can be severely impacted. A recent Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study found that just 14% of widows made financial decisions by themselves before their spouse died. According to the same study, becoming the sole financial decision-maker is the top financial challenge for nearly 70% of widows. What is 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.
Finding a New Normal
Best known for his Serenity Prayer, American Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Regardless of your religious position, much can be gleaned from this prayer. One thing we cannot change is death. Two emotions emerge, grief and guilt. The Five Stages of Grief by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross demonstrates the various stages one may go through to get to acceptance. Allowing the person to work through their grief, in their timing, is vital. Sometimes feelings of guilt can occur when people feel they aren’t grieving appropriately.
Allowing them the freedom to grieve can give the person the courage to accept a new normal without guilt. Once they start moving through the stages, a new normal will become more present and accepted. Support by family and friends is essential for the person to continue the healing process. It’s helpful to remember that grieving is a natural process that leads to healing with care and support. 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 navigate the process of applying for VA Pension funds, maximize pension benefits, get care started as quickly as possible, and help them maintain the benefit for as long as needed.