Supporting an Elderly Person Coping with Grief

Help and advice on supporting an older person whose loved one has died

Last updated: 10 November 2016

Grief can have a significant emotional and physical impact on anyone, but these effects can be worse for the elderly. Losing someone close, especially a spouse or partner, can make existing health conditions worse, lead to major changes in living arrangements, and increased stress.

Older people are also more likely to experience bereavement more frequently, as friends and loved ones reach the end of their lives. This may increasingly make them feel that their time is also close, which can bring feelings of anxiety and loneliness.

Understanding grief

The practical implications and the physical impact of grief can be much worse in old age. When supporting an elderly person after a bereavement, keep the following in mind:

  • The grief may have an impact on their physical health. Although grief can have physical symptoms at any age, studies have shown that the elderly are more likely to suffer from severe health problems after the death of a loved one, due to increased stress levels.
  • They may lose their appetite. A lot of people experience a decreased appetite as they get older, but grief can make this even worse. They may feel unable to eat for several days or only pick at their meals.
  • Grief can affect their ability to think clearly. Bereavement can lead to feelings of confusion in everyone, but for the elderly this can be more intense, with bouts of forgetfulness, disorientation and disorganization.
  • Losing a loved one might lead to major life changes. For some old people, losing a loved one can mean losing a carer or support system, leading to huge lifestyle changes. They may need to move into sheltered accommodation or a nursing home, further adding to their stress.
  • Financial difficulties may worsen grief. Living on a pension can be difficult at the best of times, but losing a loved one can mean increased financial pressure too. This in turn can lead to more stress and upset.
  • They may feel isolated and lonely. Loneliness has become a serious problem for an aging population. Losing a friend, partner or relative may mean losing someone to socialize with. The loneliness of having no one to talk to can make grief much harder to cope with in old age.

Ways to help

Like anyone who has lost a loved one, the key to supporting a bereaved older person is being there when they need you, listening to them, and not ignoring the fact that they are going through an incredibly difficult time. There are some other key things that might be particularly helpful to bear in mind when supporting the elderly through grief:

  • Spend time with them. Perhaps the most important thing when supporting an elderly grieving person is keeping them company. Sometimes something as simple as dropping by to say hello or watching TV with them can help.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about their loved one. Even though grief can be especially difficult in old age, you don’t need to shy away from mentioning their loved one. They may even want to talk about them and share some memories.
  • Take them to doctor’s appointments. As mentioned, an elderly person’s health can suffer after bereavement. Help them stay healthy by offering to drive them to important appointments.
  • Cook for them or go food shopping. Eating healthy, wholesome food can be vital for keeping an older person’s strength up during grief. Make sure they’ve got lots of easily prepared meals for the days and weeks to come.
  • Help them with paperwork. If you are a close friend or family member it may be appropriate for you to help the bereaved with any forms they need to fill out. It may be that their loved one was the ‘bill-payer’, so they might need help understanding what household bills they need to take care of and how to pay them.
  • Take them out for the day. Try inviting them out for a day trip, or offering to take them shopping. Let them know that they can go home at any time they want, and don’t be disheartened if they turn you down the first few times. Keep inviting them to things without pressuring them to say yes.
  • Keep supporting them in the long term. Offering help around the time of the funeral is useful, but it is often in the months and years after that things become really lonely and difficult. Try to keep in touch with them, especially on important dates like anniversaries and birthdays.

If you need extra advice on supporting a bereaved person, contact a specialist bereavement support organization to talk to a trained expert.