Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC
King David wrote these words about 3000 years ago. He was a shepherd back then, so we had time at night to admire the heavens and reflect upon their Creator. This particular poem, recorded in our Bible as Psalm 30, says “… Tears may linger at nightfall, but there will be joy in the morning.”
For many of us, particularly seniors, the tears linger without the apparent promise of daybreak. When we lose a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a child, or a pet, there is a period of grief that may be far-reaching. It may affect every aspect of health.
I have seen studies that link our personalities as reflected on psychological tests that measure aggression to the efficiency of our immune systems. You may have heard the expression, “Bill is to mean to die.” There may be something to that. People that score high on the aggression scales also tend to possess very aggressive immune systems. Conversely, we may surmise that people experiencing grief and depression are more susceptible to diseases – even the common cold – because the immune system is also “depressed.
If you are caring for a senior who is coping with loss, be aware of changes in mood. There may be loss of appetite, nervousness, lack of sleep, exhaustion, and inability to concentrate or carry on a conversation. You may observe changes in habits or loss of interest in relationships or activities.
Something that is particularly perplexing for caring family members is survivor guilt. When a senior survives a spouse, there is frequently an unreasonable feeling of guilt for being the last one standing. There may be some angst at not being the first one to go. I have seen it both ways.
Even among people who love each other deeply, if one of them passes away, the survivor may be angry at the absent one for leaving. Of course, this is not rational, but feelings are not rational by definition. As a pastor of mine once put it, “Puppy love is real to the puppy.” Feelings, however irrational they may seem to us, are real and must be dealt with as they are.
So how do we help the senior in grief? We must be vigilant about the physical aspects of health. Nutrition, rest, and exercise must be encouraged. This may be challenging with a contrary senior, so you will have to join them in the effort. They need the company.
A grieving senior might tend to skip medications, so keep an eye on pill counts. Get them involved in a group of some sort – a church, ideally – so that there is human companionship. Support groups can be helpful as they demonstrate that grief is universal. Encourage the grieving senior to reach out and care for someone else. They will feel needed and important at a time that they might otherwise feel useless.
Consider adopting a pet. A low maintenance pet, like a kitten, can be great company and a good distraction. The pet needs love, too, so this is a win – win solution if it is practical.
It is never easy. Sometimes grief is temporary, but the loss is permanent. Time does not heal everything. Love your seniors every day and fill their longing however you can. We will all be there someday.