When the elderly suffer a loss, caregivers need to recognize the signs of grief and help them cope. More than 70% of elderly people will lose someone close to them in a given 30-month period of time. Of course, grief in and of itself is simply a normal response when one loses someone. When an elderly loved one appears to be suffering from prolonged periods of grief, he or she may be displaying prolonged grief disorder (PGD).
Fortunately, PGD is somewhat rare, as only about 10% of those who suffer a loss will eventually develop the condition. It occurs frequently enough that friends and family should be aware of the condition. It is also important that they can identify it. If PGD is a concern, it is best to obtain professional counseling immediately.
Again, grief itself is not a problematic condition; it is an understandable response when someone suffers a loss. Prolonged grief is generally defined as intense grief which lasts for more than six months. This intense feeling of grief can have serious negative health consequences.
Intense grief can have some serious side effects if left unchecked. These include:
What's more, someone suffering from PGD may become ill more frequently and with more severity.
PGD robs its victims of their enjoyment of life. It can affect physical conditions such as blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, a weakened immune response (leading to the above-noted increased frequency of illnesses), and difficulty sleeping. Each of these can lead to health consequences. Further, all other factors being equal, people suffering from PGD will experience a greater mortality rate than other people. Simply put, PGD can result in serious health problems and even a greater chance of dying.
Aside from the duration, PGD can frequently be identified through the severity of the grief. People suffering from PGD may experience grief so incapacitating, it leaves them utterly unable to care for themselves. This is not so much because they are physically unable to do anything as much as it is because they are so distraught over the loss that they simply lose any interest in doing anything.
Someone experiencing PGD may spend a great deal of his or her time thinking about things such as death and dying. The person may express a desire to be reunited with the person who has died. Taken to its extreme, such a consideration may result in a suicide attempt. Thus, caregivers of someone who is experiencing PGD should be on the alert for any indication that the person hopes to join the departed person.
An elderly person with PGD may be unable to adjust to the new routines of life without the deceased person. He or she may express anger and frustration that the departed one "abandoned" him or her. Alternatively, he or she may blame God (or whatever deity he or she believes in) for allowing things to unfold in such a manner. This can lead to a crisis of faith, and--to the extent that an elderly one's faith helps him or her to feel purposeful--a loss of purpose in life.
The first thing a caregiver should do is learn to pay attention to the elderly loved one's disposition. If he or she has experienced a loss, family members/caregivers should be alert for any symptoms of grief which may extend beyond what is normal. Family caregivers cannot provide assistance on the same level as a professional mental health provider. However, they can and should be alert to any symptoms of PGD. This enables them to take additional steps if PGD presents itself.
If an elderly loved one seems to be grieving harder than is normal, or if the period of intense grief extends longer than caregivers feel is normal, family members should consider asking the elderly loved one to talk to a counselor. If he or she is hesitant to seek help, family caregivers should learn what they can about the disorder. Caregivers should also continue to offer whatever type of help the elder person will accept. Also, they can continue gently suggesting the person talk with a professional.
Such times can be challenging for family caregivers. The good news is that with treatment, most people will eventually recover from PGD. With patience and assistance, they can move past this hurdle. Then the process of adjusting to life without the spouse can begin.
Boelen, P. A., Prigerson, H. G. (December 2007). The influence of symptoms of prolonged grief disorder, depression, and anxiety on quality of life among bereaved adults. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 257(8): 444 - 452. Available at: https://www.infona.pl/resource/bwmeta1.element.springer-6ed1d138-24ce-337e-bac2-7ff7dbd8d90b. Retrieved July 13, 2016.
Prigerson, H.G., Horowitz, M. J., Jacobs, S.C., Parkes, C.M., Aslan, M., Goodkin, K., et al. (August 4, 2009). Prolonged Grief Disorder: Psychometric Validation of Criteria Proposed for DSM-V and ICD-11. PLoS Medicine 6(8): e1000121. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000121.Available at: http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000121. Retrieved July 13, 2016.