Loss and Loneliness
We’ve had some really moving and powerful conversations with people recently about how lonely it can be when a life partner dies, and how devastating the grief and loss of confidence can be.
This week is Dying Matters week. We’ve had some really moving and powerful conversations with people recently about how lonely it can be when a life partner dies, and how devastating the grief and loss of confidence can be. These are our thoughts around this year’s theme of ‘What Can You Do’, with a focus on how we can reduce loneliness and isolation for older people in Sheffield.
Bereavement and loneliness can start before death
Caring for someone with a serious health condition or disability, particularly dementia, can be really lonely and carers are at high risk of loneliness and isolation. When someone knows that the person they care for is going to die, they often start grieving before the person’s death as they come to terms with the loss of the person as they knew them. Then when the person they care for dies, their role, routine and the nursing support and other contacts they have had with professionals caring for their partners all fall away. Support is there for carers from a range of organisations, and Age Better is currently funding a project called Together by Enrichment for the Elderly to support family members on their journey of their loved one going into a care home and beyond.
Of course dying can be very lonely for the person who is dying themselves, and allowing them to talk about their own death can also make their last days more peaceful and connected.
We know that having someone to talk to after a loved one’s death is really important. If someone you know has been bereaved, give them time to grieve and talk about what is important to them at their own pace without trying to reassure them that it’s still early days, or that things will get easier as time passes. Age Better in Sheffield offers a counselling service (Wellbeing Practitioners) for anyone over 50 in Beauchief and Greenhill, Burngreave, Firth Park and Woodhouse which can be a great support for those with more complicated grief or who don’t have friends and family to provide emotional support. Wellbeing practitioners will be accepting new referrals from July. Cruse also provide a national helpline as well as local support.
Early on in the process it may help to have someone stay over so the bereaved person doesn’t feel alone in the home they’ve shared with their partner. As time goes on, one piece of research found that the loneliest people were those who had someone to confide in, but felt that they weren’t available. Getting in touch regularly, checking in and making sure they know that you are there for them can make all the difference.
We hear a lot about planning for the death and the arrangements afterwards, but very little about planning for those who will be left behind and how they will continue to live the lives that they and their partner would want them to have. In relationships one partner may drive the car, whilst another stays in touch with the family and friends; one may look after the home while another looks after the finances. When one partner isn’t there any longer, it can be difficult to know how to pick up the skills and responsibilities that the other partner carried out. Thinking about these beforehand and perhaps sharing skills and expertise can ease things afterwards.
Offer practical support
For women particularly, the loss of a partner can often mean a reduction in household income and in many cases loss of access to transport (whilst many women are completely independent, and times are changing, many older women have never learned to drive and might have a limited range of places that they visit alone).Age UK Sheffield offer a service which can support older people to respond to changes in circumstances, including making sure they are getting the benefits they are entitled to, while Sheffield Community Transport provide transport options which can help older people who can’t access public transport to be less isolated (or of course, if there’s a car, learning to drive might be a possibility too).
Individuality is important
“I spent 40 years with her. I never went out with the lads, we spent every evening together. Then she went and left me. That is she died.” For men particularly their partner may be the only person that they are emotionally close to and, especially after retirement, may be the only person they regularly see. For carers, identity may be bound up in caring for someone, whilst for women identity may be bound up in being a wife or mother. For those thinking ahead, maintaining our own individuality, interests and friendships in middle age when there are so many other demands on our lives is perhaps one of the most important things that we can do to prevent loneliness in older age.
So is adaptability
Research indicates that adaptability to changing circumstances may be key to loneliness after bereavement. Counselling can help people to make some of those changes, or helping someone who has been bereaved to find a new routine and new meaning in life. When confidence is low you can help someone you care for who has been bereaved to adapt by accompanying them to new groups or by travelling to new places with them until they are more familiar with them and their confidence grows.
Death doesn’t get easier as you get older
It’s understandable to think that as you get older and more people around you die it must get easier, but it doesn’t. The oldest old (those aged 85 and older) and people who have experienced multiple bereavements are particularly at risk of loneliness, but the oldest old are much less likely to be referred for bereavement counselling.
Being bereaved is always going to be hard, but we can help to make the experience less lonely by talking and allowing them to grieve, helping people to access the support that is available and supporting people to adapt to the change at a pace that is comfortable for them.