Elderly Loss: Treat It with Respect

February 12, 2013

Coping with loss can be difficult for anyone, but the elderly may have a particularly difficult time because they may have lost so much. They may face the loss of physical health, a loved one, friends, their home and their profession. It is important that family members and health care professionals learn to understand the impact of loss on elderly people.

The elderly are less likely to cope as well as young people because of the added years of meaning behind the loss.

Losses can have multiple effects--psychological, social and physical. For example, the loss of a driver's license can greatly affect an older person's self-esteem, sense of responsibility, and independence. The impact is more than just losing the license. Psychologists suggest that the caregiver of a person who can no longer drive offer a reason such as, "the car doesn't work anymore," instead of saying "you're not a safe driver anymore."

Similarly, the loss of a family home due to a move to a nursing home can symbolize to older people that they are no longer able to care for themselves. You need to honour decision-making for these elders giving them a sense of choice and power in their lives. Instead of telling someone where they are going to live, involve them in the decision-making by offering choices. Instead of announcing that a family member is coming at a specific hour to visit, ask what time he or she would like the visitor to arrive.

Working closely with the staff of the new elder residence can also ease the transition.

Some losses for the elderly can be prevented or made less stressful. Foe example, loss of eyesight due to glaucoma can be prevented through regular screenings. Loss of the work role due to retirement-- and the identity crisis that may accompany retirement--can be eased through pre-retirement counselling, activity planning, and volunteer work. Loss of bone strength may be combatted by exercise, calcium intake, selected medication, and a bone density exam after age 50. Above all, give your elder respectful communication time to express what they feel about the loss. It's really important to actively listen and honour their emotions, no matter what they are feeling. Listening offers direct comfort and support.

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