How do grief and loss affect older people?

Loss can happen at any age, but it is more common as people get older. Common losses for older adults are the deaths of loved ones, loss of a job and income, loss of health, and loss of independence. Sometimes, many losses happen in a short time. This can make it harder to cope with each loss.

Definition of grief and loss

Grief is the emotional response to loss. Everyone grieves differently. It is thought that there are five common emotions for grief. These are described in the table below. Some people may have one or two of these. Some may have all five. These emotions do not happen in any order.

Definition of grief and loss
Definition of grief and loss


EmotionHow a person reactsWhat a person thinks
Denial and IsolationWill not accept the loss. Stays away from social activities and people.“This can’t be happening.”
AngerThinks the loss is not fair. Can feel angry about everything.“Why me?”   “Who is to blame?”
BargainingAsks a higher power to change what has happened.“If you stop this from happening, I will…”
DepressionMay be sad all the time. May not be able to do normal daily activities.“What is the point of doing anything?”
AcceptanceFinds peace with what has happened. Accepts the loss.“I still feel sad, but it will be okay.”

How do grief and loss affect older people?

Grief and loss can have physical effects like not being able to sleep or losing your appetite, as well as mental effects like depression. They can destroy an elderly person’s immune system and make them lose interest in taking care of themselves.

loss and grief affect older people
How do loss and grief affect older people

Grief may include physical symptoms. Some common symptoms are:

  • Physical pain, such as headaches or an upset stomach
  • Low energy, and not being able to sleep
  • Less interest in eating
  • Being distracted or forgetful
  • Having a hard time concentrating
  • Changes in the person’s spirituality

Tips for Helping Older Adults With Grief and Loss

Below are some tips to help older adults cope with grief.

  • Help them stay connected to friends and family. Spend time with the person. Offer to invite others to visit, such as members of the person’s faith community. Suggest joining a support group. Suggest volunteering for a cause they choose. Encourage them to make friends by helping them find activities for older people in their area.

    Help them stay connected to friends and family
    Help them stay connected to friends and family
  • Be available to listen when they are ready. Let them talk openly about their feelings. Do not give advice. Listen without judgment. Do not compare their experience to what others have experienced. Do not compare their feelings with how others feel.
  • Suggest they write about their emotions. Sometimes writing down thoughts and feelings can make them less powerful.
  • Join them in healthy activities they enjoy. Travel, play a game, take a walk, or cook a healthy meal with them.

    Join them in healthy activities they enjoy
    Join them in healthy activities they enjoy
  • Encourage them to start a new activity or hobby. Perhaps they want to learn to draw or play an instrument. Look for free or low-cost classes at nearby senior centers or community recreation centers.
  • Help the person with daily chores, such as grocery shopping and cleaning.
  • Schedule daily exercise. Join them for a walk or a swim. Try a fitness class together.

    Schedule daily exercise
    Schedule daily exercise
  • If the grief is caused by the death of a loved one, honor the deceased person. Ask if they want to celebrate the person’s birthday, enjoy their favorite foods, or make a memory book.

Grieving takes time. There is no set length of how long grief lasts. But some people are not able to recover from grief. Watch for signs of depression or anxiety, such as when the person stops taking care of themself or talks a lot about death. If the person shows signs of depression or anxiety that get worse over time, ask a health care provider or mental health professional for help. If the loss is death, local hospice services host support groups to help family members with the grieving process. Over time, most people will start to feel better.

See more: Diarrhea and fecal incontinence in seniors


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