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Managing loss as we age

older woman wiping face with tissue

Carol is a retired schoolteacher. She became widowed, lost her beloved pet Irish setter, and her best friend moved to California, all in 14 months. Once very active, she became reclusive, easily fatigued, and continued to decline social invitations from well-meaning friends and family. Eventually, the invitations stopped, but Carol’s losses continued to immobilize her. She developed a case of shingles, and not only was her mental health on the decline, but her physical health was also being compromised.

Loss, it is inevitable in the course of life, and especially among older adults. Through retirement, there is a loss of revenue and status. Later, severed friendships happen due to relocation or death. If there are children and grandchildren, they are often busy with school, careers, and friends. The death of a spouse or a beloved pet could be the tipping point where a well-adjusted retiree becomes severely depressed. 

According to Dr. Patricia Marino, a psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester Division in White Plains. “Older adults can help manage or protect against physical and mental health loss by engaging in structured and pleasant activities. Following life events including retirement, older adults can find benefit in volunteering, courses, lectures, and other activities offered in the community. Also, psychotherapy targeting emotions and processing loss can be helpful for some older adults to manage life-changing events.”

“Who am I now?”

The loss of roles can be devastating.  Suddenly, a person is no longer someone’s spouse but now a widow or widower.  A retired executive’s opinion carries little weight. The loss of health and mobility can be slow or sudden. “Loss can occur more often as people age. It can include loss of family roles including spouse, friend, parent, and loss of community roles including retirement,” says Dr. Marino.  “Seeking support and remaining connected to your community during times of loss can be helpful.  Additionally, communication of emotions and needs during this time can be of help to many who may feel isolated and alone following a loss.”

Time for reinvention

“Recognizing and admitting loss is the first step in its management,” explains Dr. Marino.  “If the losses are relationships while general health remains intact, this can be a time for exploration of new interests, friendships, senior clubs, and if finances permit, travel.”  There are community gardens, library book clubs, continuing adult education classes, walking groups, church groups, and senior day-trips.  The key is to remain engaged with the local community, gaining from it and giving back. 
Here are other ways to protect mental and physical well-being in advanced years:

  • Keep the mind stimulated with reading; word games, brain-teasers, and puzzles
  • Partake in regular exercise to help maintain heart health and clear the mind
  • Eat a proper diet; watch cholesterol and glucose levels
  • Build social networks through volunteering, clubs, and houses of worship
  • Decrease alcohol intake
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule to promote sound rest
  • Seek professional help if depressive symptoms persist or get worse

Dr. Marino says, “When someone becomes immobilized psychologically then depression may rob confidence, sleep, focus, and even produce physical ailments. That is the time to consider professional help.” It might take the patient some exploring to find the treatment and support that works best for him or her, but the key is to persist. “Isolation during these times can be challenging. Older adults who find themselves having a difficult time managing their emotions associated with loss or change may benefit from mental health treatment, and seeking support from family and peers can be helpful.”

To find a psychiatrist or psychologist specializing in grief counseling, visit doctors.nyp.org and search grief counseling.