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How can you cope with grief? Expert advice for seniors

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How can you cope with grief? Expert advice for seniors

by Faith McNamara

Grieving, the most powerful and intense of human experiences assumes a new dimension in the lives of seniors. Guardian Carers interviewed a registered caseworker with 14 years of experience in therapeutic behaviour to understand more about it.

Fiona Walkingshaw is the Head of Adult and Child Bereavement Services at St Christophers, a fantastic support service and hospice. She has been an advocate for individuals and groups navigating the challenges of grief.

Her compassionate and holistic approach to addressing the universal experience of loss has made her a trusted figure in the field. At St Christophers, Walkingshaw oversees the delivery of grief support services, offering solace and guidance to individuals of all ages, particularly seniors facing the unique challenges of ageing and loss.

We spoke with her to find out how seniors can best cope with grief. She highlighted the complex web of grief in seniors, focusing on its symptoms, the dilemmas of anticipatory grief, the effects on mental and emotional health, and the role of family ties.

We also discuss the changing field of grief counselling, the intricacies of chronic grief, and the difficulties experienced by seniors moving into care homes. Fiona’s understanding helps to create a map of how to comprehend and cope with the complexities of grief and healing in the elderly.

The Universality of Grief

Grief, as Walkingshaw highlights, transcends age and background, uniting us in the shared experience of loss. She holds the belief that “we all have experience of loss and being supported to navigate our way through it is a really important life skill, which is good for us all to develop."

Manifestations of Grief in Seniors

Addressing the unique challenges faced by seniors, Walkingshaw notes that grief in this age group often comes with an increased awareness of mortality. "Every time someone dies, you kind of get the sense that ‘Gosh, this is getting closer to me’" she says. Physical abilities, illnesses, and social isolation also have a potential impact on the grieving process.

Anticipatory Grief in Seniors

Anticipatory grief, especially when facing life-limiting conditions, takes centre stage in Walkingshaw’s therapeutic work. She explains, "Anticipatory grieving is about saying the things that you want to say to the individual, going to visit them in the hospital, or hospice." This aspect of grief involves preparing for the inevitable while cherishing the time left.

Family Dynamics and Grief

Family plays a crucial role in the grieving process, and Walkingshaw emphasises the need for open conversations within families. "It can become the elephant in the room," she states. Acknowledging the loss and expressing condolences are vital steps in providing the support that grieving seniors need. Social isolation is also recognised as a potential challenge. In this case, community support is so important.

Multiple Losses and Coping Mechanisms

Seniors often encounter various losses, from partners to friends, family members, and even pets. Walkingshaw delves into the ways to support someone facing multiple losses in a short period. She notes, "First of all, it’s about acknowledging how impactful that is, normalising it. It’s not surprising that they’re finding things difficult."

She goes on to express that talking with them about which loss hurts them the most can help them sort through their feelings. Walkingshaw mentions that “it’s usually people you have had a bad experience with recently that you can mourn more. It’s like unfinished business”.

The Role of Grief Counsellors

Transitioning into the realm of grief counselling, Walkingshaw sheds light on the assessment process. The Adult Attitude to Grief assessment tool is introduced as a valuable resource for gauging the complexity of bereavement support needs. Walkingshaw emphasises the importance of a co-created conversation to understand the individual’s emotional and mental health.

Complicated and Prolonged Grief

Complicated or prolonged grief is explored, with Walkingshaw discussing the emerging recognition of prolonged grief disorder. She notes, "It depends if somebody satisfies that level of complexity. They might be appropriate for medication to be prescribed by a psychiatrist."

Reminiscence Therapy and Keeping Memories Alive

Walkingshaw introduces the concept of reminiscence therapy, emphasising the significance of keeping memories alive. She explains that this is a good method to “keep those continuing bonds alive”.

Reminiscence therapy can come in many forms so anyone can express their grief, from creating art to baking, as a means of remembering and honouring the deceased.

Navigating Loss of Independence

One facet of grief can be the challenging transition for seniors losing their independence or moving into care homes. The loss of independence comes with grief of its own.

Walkingshaw advocates for acknowledging both the losses and potential benefits of such changes. "It’s about acknowledging that it could well feel like a loss. It’s a change, and there are going to be upsides and downsides to it," she notes.

The Fear of Being a Burden

The fear of being a burden on others is a common concern for seniors. Walkingshaw normalises the grieving process, emphasising that expressing emotions and seeking support are healthy responses to loss.

You must address the fear of being a burden to your loved one and encourage open communication so that they do not distance themselves or withdraw.

Cognitive Impairments and Grieving

When addressing older people with Dementia and Alzheimer’s, there are many difficulties in coping with bereavement when there is a question of the individual’s ability to understand the situation.

Those who don’t remember the death of a loved one or are confused can find it difficult to accept the death. Walkingshaw advocates for working with both the person’s “feelings and reality” while offering caring and individualised support.

How Guardian Carers can help

Guardian Carers know how devastating grief and loneliness can be and that is why we offer Companion-Carers who are there to provide caring support. These Companion-Carers are not just medical attendants; rather, they are empathetic professionals who not only see to their client’s physical health but also their mental health.

Whether it is a person who is going through the painful phases of grief or a person experiencing grave loneliness, Guardian Carers Companion-Carers are there to share the burden.

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