Getting older is natural but aging is for the birds!

By Wendy Johnstone
November 30, 2020

Coping with loved ones’ losses as they age

The many, often cumulative, changes that occur with age mean that seniors and their family caregivers are continually dealing with losses.

From reflecting on past abilities that no longer exist to feelings of dependence and discomfort in acceptance of the changes ahead, loss comes in many forms. The unfamiliarity, intensity and frequency of these losses – not to mention the grief reactions that come along for the ride – create uncertainty and stress.

Chronic illness or dementia, reduced mobility, loss of driving, dwindling peer group as siblings and friends die, a change in purpose (work or family role) and, sometimes, the loss of a family home all add up. For your aging parents or loved ones, and you as their caregiver, dealing with these substantial and numerous losses can be a struggle.

Loss affects us all

It isn’t unusual for an elder to question their personal beliefs, their purpose and how to have continued meaning. They may worry about being a burden to their spouse, adult children and other family or friends. It is completely normal for them (and you) to grieve their loss of control, independence, hope and abilities.

One of our clients summed it up the other day saying, “I never thought it would get to this.” I asked, “What do you mean by that?” He expanded, “To a place where I can’t adequately care for my wife, where I live in a brain fog not always being able to string together a conversation, where I sit in the passenger seat and, on some days, I no longer know how to put on my seat belt.”

(In case you’re wondering, “How on earth did she respond to that,” the short answer is by leaning in and trying to follow the words of guidance I give others – listen, omit advice, validate and empathize. You can find a full blog on this topic here.)

Loss affects us all, but seniors can find it more difficult to cope with it and the ensuing shifts. It takes more energy to deal with change and often with little or no positive gains. Often these losses happen in a short period of time, thereby compounding things even further.

Take a pause and think for a moment about how loss affects people.

The way we react to aging, grief and loss:

How we can respond to other’s loss

Remember our client who shared his sadness about aging and loss? Here is the long answer about how to respond to loss:

Acknowledge changes, aging and loss

Successful aging and continued independence hinges on an older adult’s attitude and ability to compensate for changes.

Most of us who face loss and the changes associated with it want to talk about it. It might come out in bits and pieces or through different emotions, for example, “This isn’t working out the way I thought it would.” There is incredible value in being able to acknowledge these changes and what they mean for the aging person and those supporting him or her. Sometimes, we avoid these conversations, yet find ourselves drained emotionally from doing so. Starting conversations, being open and curious can help to displace fears or myths that otherwise might not be spoken about.

Look for opportunities to have control

Resiliency is something we can all work on – it’s not a one-time deal. If we have coped successfully earlier in life, we usually continue to do so in later years.

When limitations show themselves with aging, an open dialogue can help us to problem-solve and find ways for an individual to be engaged, involved and autonomous. One thing we know about human beings, regardless of age – we love to take charge and be in control. (Raise a hand if I’ve just described you and almost everyone you know…me included!)

Remember, attitude about change matters

Actively listen to your loved one and what they say. Seeking clarity is often best by using open-ended or probing questions. These questions also invite the person to share more with you. A question such as, “When you say you’re out of sorts, what does that mean?” allows your loved one to continue with the conversation without feeling judged or on the defence.

Offer help, but don’t take offence if it isn’t accepted. Become familiar with the tasks that seem to require the most assistance and extend your support. This shows respect. Find their strengths and areas they are still managing. Encourage them to be as independent as possible, even if it takes a longer time to complete. We all want to feel a sense of mastery and autonomy.

Put your oxygen mask on first

If this is your first time reading my blog, you will become familiar with this analogy. Give yourself permission to put your needs first. If your oxygen runs out, you are hooped – and so are the people you’re caring for.

I also believe in reminding and encouraging caregivers to set limits and schedule caregiving tasks wherever possible. Be present and compartmentalize: work when you work; give care when you are caregiving; play when you play.

Change and loss are inevitable, but strategies do exist that can help us all cope. Should you or someone you know be facing these or other eldercare challenges, feel free to get in touch with us at Keystone Eldercare Solutions for suggestions, resources and direct support.

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“You are amazing! What I tried to do in 2 months, you did in 1 week. You’ve helped us navigate the system, made sense of Mom’s disease, and gave back her independence and control. Thank you for making such a difference in Mom’s life and giving us, her family, complete peace of mind.”

– Mike G., Nanaimo, BC

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