Losing a spouse can be extremely traumatic – as you try to adjust without your partner, it can be challenging to maintain your own health. Unfortunately, spousal bereavement is a major source of stress – increasing one’s risk of health issues later in life. Depression is, of course, a major concern – as widows and widowers try to adjust.
The Health Effects of Bereavement on the Elderly
It’s hard to imagine the pain in which some people experience – as they lose their life partners, trying to accept that they’re no longer with them. Although grieving causes many possible negative effects on one’s mental health – immune function may also be significantly impacted.
Perhaps you have known a couple who have passed away within a short time of one another. As many say, they simply died of heartbreak. Research has supported this theory, in that those who suffer from immense bereavement, actually experience a weakened immune system, resulting in an increased risk of infection and disease.
It’s been found that those who lose a spouse, may actually experience a reduced ability to fight off illnesses, making them more susceptible to infections such as pneumonia. Stress hormones also become imbalanced, resulting in a number of possible negative health effects.
In comparison to younger individuals, it’s been found that elderly individuals are not as resilient when experiencing bereavement. More specifically, those over the age of 65 years of age. As levels of cortisol rise, for instance, immune function is weakened even further.
It’s also believed that immense stress, due to the loss of a spouse, could possibly increase your risk of Alzheimer’s. It’s been reported that stress may be an initial trigger for dementia and the loss of a spouse is a major stressor. Within one Finnish study, it was found that those who had high blood pressure, as well as high cortisol levels were three times more likely to develop this degenerative disease.
Dealing with Grief
The grieving process is unique to each individual and although there’s no ‘set’ timeline, it’s important to try and move forward. The memories in which you shared are yours forever – no one can take that from you. Each individual differs – some will transition from feeling distressed to feeling numb. Others may experience shock, transitioning towards fear and sadness.
Many have trouble sleeping and experience a reduction in appetite, as they begin to withdraw from friends and family. It is normal to grieve, however, you can take charge of your life once again. As you continue to grieve, keep these thoughts in the back of your mind:
- If you have children, know that they are grieving as well – the stress of losing a spouse can cause a shift in your family. It’s a tough adjustment for everyone and each individual may deal with the loss in their own way. The last thing you want to do is become estranged from your children, as you will need one another for support. Come together, do not push each other away.
- Know that mourning takes time – if you feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster, understand that the grieving process will take some time. Others may expect you to move on, but as long as you’re working towards a balanced and stable future, you can move at your own pace.
- Seek support – whether you speak to your doctor, a friend, or join a support group, it’s important to talk about how you feel. Expressing your emotions will help you overcome some of the hurt and pain you’re currently experiencing. As time passes, you will find that you can talk about your spouse in a positive manner – reflecting on the joyful memories you shared.
- Stay active – do not sit in your house with the curtains closed, mourning day in and day out. You need to get out and take care of your own health. When you feel as though the timing is right, join a new club. Even going for a daily walk will help you support your health, as you get out of the house. Your spouse would not want you to continue down a destructive path in terms of your own personal well-being.
Just because you allow yourself to say good-bye, does not mean that they will be forgotten. Allow yourself to mourn and then give yourself permission to move toward. Approach each new day, as just that – the start of a new day. With time, you will make progress.
Although you may feel alone, there are people just like you – willing to listen and help you work through your challenging emotions. CMHA and Grieving Together, are both great places to gain valuable information, insight, and support.