Old age is a challenging period in people’s lives that often includes sudden and multiple losses. For many people, the years after retirement amount to a huge chapter, thanks to medical advances that now enable people to live long and productive lives. However, many enter this life stage ill-prepared or completely unprepared for the biological, psychological and social adjustments that are part and parcel of losing a loved one late in life. More so if one has been accustomed to having the other as a constant presence.
Niele Langer in Counting Our Losses writes, “When losses make older adults feel frightened and uncertain of future direction or threaten their independence, they feel more vulnerable and less in control of their lives. The extent to which they accept and adapt to these losses directly affects the quality of life they can achieve and maintain.”
In his landmark book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl asserts that people always have the freedom to find meaning through meaningful attitudes even in apparently meaningless situations. Frankl states that this exists in everyone and each meaning-making is unique for every individual. Langer says that the ability of individuals to choose their attitude in any given set of circumstances is what gives meaning and purpose to life.
For the elderly, facing a major loss can be a difficult exercise in re-ordering and making meaning. The unique way by which meaning can be found is dependent upon their personality traits, capacities and levels of expectation. No matter the age, adults are capable of making the necessary changes that will help them continue to develop through these life-changing experiences and find sources of meaning in them. When they are able to do this, in spite of their age, they become even more empowered to cope with the losses and able to move forward minus the loved one.
Spirituality and meaning-making often go hand in hand. The person who is able to see the hand of the Divine in the circumstances of his or her life, and is able to accept this in the light of faith, more often than not is able to get back into his or her routine with more ease than the person who is unable to do so. A period of questioning and grappling with the loss is normal, but seen through the lens of faith, the sadness becomes bearable and acceptance comes earlier than those who lose all hope and choose to intellectualize the loss.
There are several ways that the elderly can help themselves as they journey from a place of deep sadness to a place of hope.
First, exercise regardless of one’s age or state is possible. Physical activity is beneficial and has powerful mood-boosting effects. It can be as simple as walking around the block in the early morning or evening, taking the stairs or doing light housework.
Connecting with others by reaching out and limiting your “alone time” can also be very helpful. Learning how to e-mail or joining a social network, keeping in touch through text or phone calls or even inviting people over to visit can help minimize the loneliness that comes with losing someone you love.
Getting enough sleep is crucial to keeping a sharp mind and a happy heart. There is nothing like a full seven to eight hours of sleep to cure whatever sadness there might be. In addition to an adequate amount of sleep, maintaining a healthy diet by eating food as close to the source and with less salt and sugar is needed to provide nourishment and energy. Avoid fried, fatty foods that make the body feel heavy. Omega-3 and folic acid have been shown by studies as effective in keeping one’s mood stabilized.
Pet therapy has also been shown to be effective. Whether you are a dog- or cat person, the company of a pet never fails to brighten one’s disposition. Find one that you can manage and easily take care of, one whose temperament will match or complement yours. Pets, more so dogs, provide the unconditional love that is often so much needed after a loss.
Don’t be afraid to laugh. The writer Anne Lamott calls laughter “carbonated holiness.” Laughter provides a mood boost and helps release the happy hormones. Watch funny movies or trade funny stories with friends and loved ones. There is no guilt whatsoever in being able to smile or laugh again, even the loved one now gone, would certainly approve.
Cathy S. Babao, mother, author, columnist, grief educator and counselor works as a communications consultant for various multinational companies, and teaches grief education at the Ateneo de Manila University.
She writes "Roots and Wings", a weekly column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. She has written two books, Heaven's Butterfly, a children's book on grief, and Between Loss and Forever: Filipina Mothers on the Grief Journey, a finalist for the 2011 National Book Awards.