YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It’s never easy losing a loved one. But for older adults in senior-care centers, the process can be even more difficult. The death of someone they’ve known the vast majority of their life can have impacts on their health and well-being.
“Even though someone is going through mourning, having something as a distraction that can bring a smile or have them see other people is beneficial,” says Connie Leathers, the activities director at The Blackburn Home in Poland. “When you’re stuck in mourning, there’s no outlet and having something continual that you can share with friends can be that outlet.”
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown of senior-care centers that came with it, the process of mourning has been thoroughly disrupted for older adults. If a family member dies, they can’t go to the funeral service. If a sibling gets sick, there can be no visits to make sure they’re feeling OK. Even in the centers, hugs are off limits and condolences have to be offered from at least six feet away.
For Leathers, all of that has changed how she does her job. Before the pandemic, her primary responsibility was to keep the center’s residents engaged and active. Now, she’s had to figure out how to help them grieve as well.
“It’s not my specialty to have a prayer group, but when it’s so clearly needed, you have to jump in,” she says. “And right now it is needed.”
In a time when isolation can be so easy, especially for older adults, it can be compounded by the mourning process, says Karen Lewis, one of the two bereavement facilitators at Mercy Health’s Hospice of the Valley.
“A lot of times in the older population, they’re already by themselves most of the time. So if they have a loved one they did everything together with, losing them means they’re not only grieving but they may be further isolating,” she says.
Beyond just the emotional aspect of grief, there are also the physical and medical ones.
In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Marilyn Mendoza writes stresses like grief affect people differently as they get older. For seniors, it’s been linked to decreased immune system functions, higher rates of heart disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease.
“What could be more stressful than losing a loved one and being lonely? Grief and loneliness can impact mortality,” she writes. “Recently, much attention has been focused around the world on the problem of loneliness across the life span. However, being lonely in your 20s or even 50s is very different from being lonely in your 90s … For the aged, one of the biggest roadblocks to socialization is their lack of mobility and freedom.”
At Hospice of the Valley, Lewis says the health issues can be as simple as not sleeping well, eating less or even just an upset stomach. But what’s important is that those medical issues aren’t left unattended and allowed to escalate into bigger problems.
In support groups, which recently reopened after being suspended because of the coronavirus, Lewis focuses on helping people deal with their grief in healthful ways. What’s important to remember, she says, is that everyone grieves differently.
“Some people might go to the cemetery every day. Someone might say, ‘That’s crazy. Why do you do that?’ If that person is comforted by going, that’s healthy coping for that person,” she says. “But if they’re going out of a sense of obligation and crying the entire time, then they have to ask themselves if it’s really comforting or if it’s causing more harm.”
At Blackburn Home, Leathers notes that behaviors of the grieving process are often rooted in how we’re raised. For older adults, it’s not uncommon that how they were expected to act during such times as children or young adults is usually how they’ll act today.
“That sense of closure is missing when you can’t go to a service or Mass in honor of someone. This is a traditional generation and they miss it incredibly,” Leathers says. “Every person is different and they grieve in a different way based on how they grew up and what the expectations were. Everyone has a different normal.”
As a way to keep things as close to normal as possible, Leathers has started a table full of blank cards, which residents can take, fill out and “mail” to other residents as sympathy cards.
“It’s showing support. It’s making sure people get plenty of cards so they can send them to each other, just as they would to a friend across the state,” she says. “We have to have those things available because that’s the traditional way. You send your sympathy and offer support.”
When dealing with the loss of a loved one, it’s also important to consider the role that person played in others’ lives. If one half of a couple in a senior-care center dies, the other isn’t just losing a spouse, but perhaps also a best friend, confidante or even a game partner.
“The length of the relationship is what dictates how a person grieves,” Lewis says. “We deal with that loss one-on-one and according to the needs of that person.”
In helping others through the mourning process, what’s important is that everyone is allowed to do so in their own way, given that it’s in a healthy way.
“It can be a roller coaster ride. They might have bouts of depression or bouts of isolation or feelings of being overwhelmed or feelings of neediness. Today they might not want to bother with someone but tomorrow they will,” Lewis says.
In helping seniors deal with the loss of someone close to them, encouragement and support is often what’s prescribed by those tasked with helping them through the process.
“Sad isn’t bad. It’s OK to be not OK. That’s all part of the process. What I encourage people is to give themselves permission to grieve,” Lewis says. “People often want to suppress it. They want to suck it up and be strong for their family. It’s OK to have tears; I call that liquid love.”
Pictured: Connie Leathers, activities director at The Blackburn Home in Poland, says residents are missing the closure of being able to attend funeral services. Inside, support from other residents is more important than ever.