When a Spouse Dies: How to Help Your Loved One with Dementia Cope with Loss

The death of a beloved spouse—especially a partner for decades—is one of life’s most stressful events. In fact, on the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, a tool used to predict risk of stress-induced health issues, death of a spouse ranks first, above divorce, marital separation, imprisonment, and death of another close family member.

When the surviving partner is someone you love who is struggling with Alzheimer’s Disease or another dementia, loss of a spouse becomes all the more complex and stressful, depending upon the stage and type of dementia. For some, the spouse’s death may be profoundly understood and grieved; for others with more advanced dementia, the loss of a spouse may be known one moment and forgotten the next, creating a seemingly endless cycle of grief with each telling.

Six Top Strategies from Experts on Aging

But there are creative and effective ways to help an aging parent, family member or other loved one with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia to cope with the loss of a spouse. In a recent survey by the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, 288 professional geriatric care managers identified six top strategies:

  1. Remember, there are many stages of dementia. Your loved one’s capacity for understanding, coping and grieving will vary depending on the stage of the disease. Understanding your loved one’s disease progression will help you to frame your response more effectively.
  2. If your loved one enjoys reminiscing about her spouse, share old photos and memories. This can help you both to grieve and heal.
  3. Make sure your loved one is not socially isolated. Schedule visits on a regular basis and help him keep up with any normal social routines. Human connections and structure will help him to stay grounded.
  4. Reassure her that there are people who care about her and who will help to care for her. Follow promises with deeds.
  5. Don’t rush big changes. While it may make sense for him to move to a care facility or closer to family, if possible, give him time to adapt so he doesn’t have to deal with too many life changes at once.
  6. If she wants to be included in mourning rituals for her spouse, be sure that she has appropriate support so that she can leave if the situation becomes too overwhelming or stressful.

Tailor Response to Your Loved One’s Needs

Above all, respondents agreed, be certain to tailor your response to your loved one’s individual needs, regarding both stage of dementia and personality. Some forms of dementia affect short-term memory more profoundly than others. Don’t assume anything based on a diagnosis. Observe and respond with empathy and compassion.

In addition, if your loved one is no longer able to express herself verbally, don’t underestimate her ability to understand the loss at an emotional level. Take your cues for what to do from her. If she is not aware or focused on the loss, don’t assume that she doesn’t care; but don’t remind or instigate a conversation about the loss, especially if she isn’t talking about it. Simply follow her lead.

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified geriatric care manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in geriatric care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

The National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers (NAPGCM) was formed in 1985 to advance dignified care for older adults and their families. Geriatric Care Managers are professionals who have extensive training and experience working with older people, people with disabilities and families who need assistance with caregiving issues. They assist older adults who wish to remain in their homes, or can help families in the search for a suitable nursing home placement or extended care if the need occurs. For more information and to find a listing of professional geriatric care managers in your community, visit the NAPGCM website: http://www.caremanager.org.

For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsGCM.

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