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 Tags: Seniors

Anyone who lives long enough experiences loss. The longer you live, the more you are likely to lose. I don’t just mean the deaths of friends and loved ones, but also the cumulative losses, large and small, that can change lives, even personalities.

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As professionals working with seniors, we acknowledge and often address what I refer to as the “biggie losses,” such as grieving the death of a spouse or a personal loss of independence. In this blog, I would like to address the effects of some of the more subtle losses that we experience as we age. These examples are gleaned from forty years of working with an aging population over 85.

Loss of self

Most people are able to handle major losses over time. But a series of smaller losses can have a snowballing effect that can be just as devastating as attachment loss or the death of a loved one. I am referring to the slow erosion of one’s very personality—the pieces of ourselves we lose as the result of changes in the rituals and roles of life.

Each of us is a complex network of routines and habits that define our sense of self. We wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night expecting that everything will remain the same as we left it the day before. Throughout life, our days are filled with hundreds of these personal indicators to which we pay little attention. These routines and habits are not so much the content of our lives as they are the framework we live within.

Loss of reference points

Most seniors enter a new living or care situation as the result of a notable decline—or merely the anticipation of it. Whether the change involves assisted living, an adult day care center, a nursing home, a family caregiver, or a professional home health aide, it tends to be accompanied by an unacknowledged decline due to the very move itself. It is the loss of familiar, reassuring, personal routines. Whatever “diminished capacities” are documented at the start of assistive or personal care, a loss of independence is actually a loss of personal reference points. As more and more of these emotional tethers break away, it can feel like drifting, powerless, wherever the wind may carry us. This can be experienced as grieving the loss of one’s personality.

The many faces of senior grief

The experience of going from healthy and independent to ill and in need of care can seem like a bus ride that you never get off. Over the years, through hundreds of conversations with seniors, I learned not to be surprised by the responses they shared about what constitutes a profound loss in their lives. Some of the more subtle losses they are grieving—that can make seniors feel sad, aimless, even depressed—are not often considered, but make a sobering list:

  • Balance
  • Community
  • Control
  • Dreams
  • Driving
  • Expectations
  • Faith
  • Goals
  • Health
  • Hope
  • Inspiration
  • Intimacy
  • Joy
  • Laughter
  • Motivation
  • Patterns
  • Purpose
  • Roots
  • Security
  • Self-esteem
  • Self-respect
  • Support
  • Tomorrow
  • Trust

What can we do to help?

As a senior’s world gets smaller, usually due to chronic disease or disability, control over daily rituals takes on even greater importance. How do we as family or professional caregivers help them cope with complicated levels of loss and feel more of a sense of control over their new realities?

It’s fairly easy for a caregiver to see the usual range of a senior’s everyday needs. For the other, more subtle emotional needs, awareness is key. Simply being aware of these less visible effects of aging can help a family caregiver or professional clinician understand the sources of decline that may not show up in charts or medical histories. Merely allowing, even encouraging the expression of these feelings can begin to help an aging senior close the door on one chapter of life and begin anew!

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