How to deal with losses that come with aging

By Valerie
April 15, 2011

My grandmother was a voracious reader.

She was equally a discerning reader as she was an avid Harlequin Romance fan; just so long as she could enjoy a good book.

She was in her late 80s when cataracts made it next to impossible to read. She went to large print until she couldn’t read the larger font.

She wasn’t a candidate for surgery. Next, she tried books on tape (I’m dating myself here!) but despite a hearing aid, she had difficulty following the reader’s voice. Understandingly, she grew frustrated and at times became very upset about the loss of her vision.

In my naiveté and quest to save the world at 20 years old, I said to her, “Nana, there’s still so much you can do. Shouldn’t you focus on the positive?”

She looked at me quite fiercely and just as I was about to cower away into the corner, her eyes softened. She replied, “My dear Wendy, forgive me. I’ve lost my vision. I’ve lost my hearing which means I can no longer read, fully enjoy classical music, play cards with my friends or sew.

“I’ve also lost my husband and many of my friends. Most days, I feel like I’ve lost myself.”

The experience of loss can cause personal pain or a disruption in our lives. Losses can be minor or major and relative to how the person perceives the loss.

Tangible losses such as a death, chronic illness, and change in physical abilities or senses are often easier to recognize whereas intangible losses such as the perceived loss of control and independence can be more subtle or less obvious.

Take a moment and humour me with this next exercise. It will take you less than five minutes.

Grab a piece of scrap paper and pen. Write 1 through 7 down the left column of the page.

Imagine yourself at 85 years old, living happily in your own home and enjoying much independence.  Unexpectedly, one morning you have a major stroke and land in the hospital.

From your seven-item list, cross out three items.

Now imagine you’ve been living with help at home recovering from your stroke. Despite all the help, you and your family realize more assistance is needed and you will need to move into a residential care facility.

From your four items left, cross off two more items.

How does this make you feel?

How difficult was it to choose between losing an important person, i.e., a spouse versus a body part that you couldn’t live without, i.e., no longer being able to use one’s brain due to memory loss?

When caring for our loved ones, it is important to understand the array of emotions they may be going through. Many older adults describe age-related losses as “losing themselves.” Many feel they are no longer the person they once were and often grieve the loss of their abilities.

Each of us deal with these losses differently and grief comes in many forms including shock, denial, depression, feelings of loneliness, and anger.

The more we can acknowledge the changes and losses taking place, the more opportunities there are to regain control and maintain independence.

Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Planning. Her column runs in the Comox Valley Record every second Friday.

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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