Grief and Loss for Seniors: The Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

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When seniors experience the loss of a spouse, the grief can be debilitating. Their life’s companion, the person they made life-changing decisions with, the person by their side for better or worse, is gone. Some clinicians believe that we move through stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, if an elderly widow or widower becomes too ingrained in one of those stages, the grief can turn into something much more serious.

What grief looks like

Grief with seniors comes in many forms. When dealing with the death of a spouse, seniors may experience:

  • Inability to make decisions
  • Loss of energy and appetite
  • Painful longing for their partner
  • Anger or guilt at being left behind
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Bouts of depression or disorientation

How to help

Whether or not a grieving senior reaches out for help, you can watch for these signs and offer gentle support. Be a polite but persistent presence. Be sure to acknowledge their feelings. When they are ready and open, share your own memories and encourage them to share theirs. Be a good listener. Let them talk, or sit with them in silence. They may likely be confused, sad, angry and guilty; let them vocalize these feelings in a safe space, with no feelings of judgement. 

Be proactive. Talk with the grieving senior about the practical assistance you can give. Offer to help them with chores around the house, paying bills, maintaining vehicles, and getting exercise and socializing. This way not only can you help reduce their stress during a difficult time, but you can always watch for the warning signs that they might be plummeting deeper into their grief.

One easy way to get a grieving senior out of their grief is by helping them connect with others. Reaching out to former classmates is a great way to help break through the dark fog of mourning.

Issues can arise

It’s not uncommon for grieving spouses to rely on advice from others to cope with their loss. However, sometimes when people are dealing with deep emptiness and loss, they turn to substances to numb the pain. This is especially dangerous for seniors, many of whom are on medications that might have adverse complications with drugs and alcohol.

Sometimes seniors view reaching out for help as a sign of weakness or as a burden to their families. When dealing with the darkness alone, they might turn to the comfort of prescription medications or alcohol. Studies show people over 65 tend to be generously prescribed medications for blood pressure, pain, anxiety and depression. If an elderly widow or widower is prescribed these medications, he or she may start increasing the dose or frequency to help calm nerves and emotions. 

On the other hand, these medications can also be much stronger if taken with or on alcohol. Have you noticed the surviving senior drinking more than usual? Have you noticed overt or subtle signs of intoxication more frequently than you’d like? This could be a sign that the surviving senior spouse might be succumbing to the grip of substance abuse

It might be tempting to ignore these signs, even for a little while. You may think that a little extra help during this tough time isn’t so bad. It might be so hard to watch them go through the grief that you might even think they deserve a little escape. This can be a slippery slope. 

When a senior suffers loss, they may exhibit behaviors that are out of the norm. Be patient and understanding, but also be observant to their triggers and coping mechanisms. Keep watch for activities that might cause a downward spiral. 

Paying attention—that’s the best way to help an elderly person who is suffering from the loss of a loved one. Be present, be attentive, and be supportive. That way you can recognize the signs of a healthy healing process or when something more dangerous is going on. Encourage them to see their doctor or speak to a trusted advisor for counseling.

This article is brought to you by Shushan Khachatryan, a psychotherapist providing therapy to individuals, couples, and adolescents. Shushan’s goal is to assist you in your journey of working towards your potential and improving your well-being. For more information, contact her today at (818) 926-3030.

Author: Jennifer Scott

Categories: Uncategorized

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