Grief in the so called Golden Years of Life
The “Golden Years” is a term that I have heard countless times over my 56 years of life. When you are young you casually just accept the term and go on with your daily life and think that it must be a great thing to get older since it is referred to as the “Golden Years”. The longer I live the more I think that must have been a statement of irony made by someone in their 90s, when the phrase was first coined. I have been with Compassus Hospice now for almost 29 years. I know that our perceptions make up our reality, but as the years go on my reality is changing. I would have a difficult time counting the number of times I have heard people over 50 say that those years are not so “Golden”. Now don’t get me wrong. The alternative to getting older is dying so I would rather get old gracefully, or not so gracefully, as to not being here. That is what brings me back to the title GRIEF IN THE GOLDEN YEARS.
When we think about loss and about grief we think grief is typically the same for everyone, when in fact on the contrary, it is not. It is unique to each of us like our fingerprints. Grief is even unique to each generation of people. We reach a certain age and our concerns and fears change and evolve. Until we are at that point of our lives we typically don’t even have a clue what it will be like. We typically take for granted that our spouse, friends, and support systems will be there for us. As we age we slowly start to have our peers and loved ones die at an ever increasing rate, until there are just a handful of us attending our class reunion, or people who can even remember what a typewriter is, or how to adjust the aluminum foil on the TV antenna so you can get one of the 3 channels on your black and white console. We begin to feel more alone and isolated in our grief.
When we are younger we believe that we will have a good income and financial independence our whole life. The older we get, for many of us, it seems like more money goes out and the less that comes in, on a fixed income. We have increasing medical bills and expenses that can drain our life savings. What took our whole life to save can disappear in a very short period of time. This complicates our grief when we also have to deal with our concerns about our own security and well being.
It really complicates grief when you have to sell or lose the home you love and have lived in for 40 years because you can no longer afford to live in it, or can no longer physically care for yourself in that home. Many memories are attached to our homes. Our homes are an extension of who we are as a person. To this day I still enjoy going by the places I lived as a boy in Iowa, when I was growing up. The memories that flood my mind when I see one of my old homes is overwhelming. The taste of eating fresh vegetables from the garden, carrots with a little dirt on them, or pumping water by hand from the ice cold well in the back yard. Nothing ever tasted so good or smelled so sweet!
Physically we are not able to do the thing we did when we were younger and have to depend on people for assistance. Even the simple task of falling down and getting back up is HUGE. The first time my kids saw a First Alert commercial they asked me why the old man doesn’t just stand back up. I tried to explain to them that when you are young you can fall down and just pop right back up over and over again, but the older you get the harder the ground gets, the more our bones tend to brake, and the stronger the gravity is! It really made me realize until we are at those points in our life our concept of what that point is, is almost non-existent.
One of the ways we can help people from this generation in their grief is giving them the extra time they need to grieve and not trying to push them and force them through their grief. Sometimes older adults need more time to become aware of their feelings and express them. Giving an older person extra time shows that you are respectful of the their needs and acknowledges that they are facing concerns and issues that younger people do not have to face and may not be aware of.
Acknowledging and empathizing with them their feelings of sadness or changes in behavior. This may help the person become aware of his or her feelings and may help the person feel more comfortable talking with you about how he or she feels. I am constantly amazed how giving someone permission to feel how they do, helps them to accept their feelings as normal, and move forward in their grief process.
Investing your time in the person can really help the bereaved. Older people are often alone or feel alone, especially if they have lost their spouse of 50 years. They have lost a large part of themselves and who they are. Their identity has changed, and many times their own view of their self worth has changed as well. Invite them to go for a walk or have a cup of coffee or even just sit with them and watch Gunsmoke or the Price is Right. Feelings of loneliness may last for a very long time especially when an older adult has lost something or someone special. The bad thing is that when you have had a loss, you can be in a room of 100 people and still feel alone and isolated.
Talking about the loss with the bereaved person can help as well. Ask the person about his or her loss and their memories and life. Older people, especially those who have experienced several losses over a short period of time, are often helped by sharing memories. I typically watch their facial expressions and even point out when they smile or laugh about how good that memory must be, by how big their smile is. Most of us are not aware of how much our facial expressions and attitudes change when we are talking about something joyous, or related to a happier time in our life. It can really help bring the positives to the forefront and make us feel better about life overall. It can change our attitude. Once again our perceptions make up our reality.
Older adults are often dealing with more than one loss at a time. Talking about and acknowledging each loss may help the person to separate their losses and feelings and better cope with each one individually instead of lumping them all into one big pile. A number of small hills to walk over in much less overwhelming and intimidating than is a huge mountain to climb.
It is important to watch for signs of prolonged depression and complicated grief. If you have concerns that someone is having difficulty, and you feel as though they are stuck in their grief, talk to a health care professional. Groups and individual counseling can be very beneficial to help the bereaved.
Kole Carter BS MS LPC
Bereavement Coordinator – Compassus Hospice