The loss of a loved one is a heavy burden for anyone to bear.  For an elderly person, particularly a surviving spouse, it can be even more difficult. Elderly men and women are already dealing with challenges such as declining health, loss of independence and the shrinking of their longtime social circles.  When faced with the loss of their life partner, the overwhelming grief can cause them to retreat.

Research shows that social isolation poses a real threat not just to their cognitive function, but to their physical health as well.  Elderly people who are socially withdrawn are at greater risk of long-term illness, high blood pressure, heart disease, dementia, losing their ability to walk and stay mobile, and of serious depression.  Grief can suppress the immune system, making the elderly even more vulnerable.

Studies reveal that elderly men and women who do not engage with other people die at a significantly higher rate than those who remain socially connected.  This is a particularly troubling statistic as the number of senior citizens who live alone is on the rise.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help:

*Grief counseling can help surviving spouses manage their sense of loss.

*Something as simple as making transportation easily available can help isolated seniors break free of their bubble.

*Connections or reviving those ties to a church or other spiritual community can be helpful at a time of grieving.

*Gathering family members at the surviving spouse’s home for a meal or a movie can brighten days.

*For seniors who are strong enough, volunteer work, particularly with young people, gives them a meaningful activity that often has a positive effect.

*Establishing a new daily routine and a sense of stability can help life feel normal again for the spouse.

Grieving together–sharing memories, telling stories, simply stating one’s feelings–can bring family’s closer and help spouses to feel ready to join the world again.

Dr. Elizabeth Ko and Dr. Eve Glazier

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