Words for Seniors Facing Loss
By PAULA SPAN
Original Content found HERE.
My father is a relentlessly upbeat guy. “Up and around!” he reports when I call. “Keeping busy!” He tells me about his volunteer work, his card game winnings, the (seated) yoga class he enrolled in at the library. His favorite refrain is, “I can’t complain.” (And yes, yes, yes, my sister and I do know how lucky we are.)
He does tell me about the funerals, though. At 87, watching his peers struggle with the physical and psychological trials of old age, he goes to a lot of them. He keeps losing people he’s known for years — onetime co-workers, senior members of his synagogue, neighbors in his tightly knit apartment building.
His friend Molly, too frail in her 90s to remain alone in her house, recently moved to the Midwest to live with her son; they’ll probably never see each other again. The weekly card game now involves an entirely different group of guys than when he started years ago, and it sometimes stalls for several weeks as the players have health crises or move or die. Replacement players are growing harder to find.
“These things keep happening when you’re over 80,” he told me.
He goes to funerals because, he said: “It’s just the right thing to do. It shows that you feel bad, that you’ve lost a friend.”
What do you say to this litany? You want to offer something reassuring, something to lighten the sense of loss, but you can’t evade the reality: He’s outliving his friends and family members. His cohort is thinning.
Luckily, I can turn for counsel to Barbara Moscowitz, senior social worker at the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Senior Health program. (One benefit of writing this blog is that you can call up experts and pose questions, supposedly on behalf of readers, that you really want answered yourself.) Ms. Moscowitz hears such litanies from clients and their adult children all the time.
And her personal guideline is to remove age from the equation and ask yourself how you would respond if the one suffering losses was a peer, not an older person.
“We impose our expectations,” she said.
When old people lose their friends, she added: “We think, ‘You should be able to manage this. This is what happens. You should be used to it.’ Because if we ask what it’s like, we may hear what it’s like. We fear opening the floodgates of sadness.”
But we wouldn’t tell a 55-year-old friend who had attended three funerals in two months to just buck up, would we?
“When there’s been loss, to expect happiness is just denying the truth,” Ms. Moscowitz continued. “It opens up a divide between older people who then deal with the sorrow privately, knowing nobody wants to hear about it, and younger people who want them to be cheerful all the time.”
Of course, some older people don’t want to talk about the illnesses or deaths of their friends or neighbors, either — but in her experience, Ms. Moscowitz said, most do.
“Those people are part of their history, their legacy,” she said. “If we send a message that we don’t want to hear about it, it says: That person is not worth remembering.”
Grief — feeling sad, weepy, temporarily at sea — is different from clinical depression, it’s important to recognize. Grief is a normal response to loss; depression is an illness that’s usually treatable, both in young people and old ones. Symptoms that persist — like appetite loss, sleep problems, loss of interest in normal activities, thoughts of suicide and, in older people, confusion or agitation — are red flags that signal the need for a medical evaluation.
But my father is not depressed. He’s coping with one of the more difficult aspects of a long life. So I listen to the funeral reports and try not to respond by pointing out all the reasons he has to feel fortunate.
I try to remember to say things like: “Ah, that’s so sad. How long had you known this person? What was he like? Do you need help arranging a ride to the funeral home? I’m sorry, Dad. It must be hard. I bet you’ll miss him.”
Paula Span is the author of “When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions.”