Healing tips for older adults who are grieving

Grief is a normal part of aging. Learn causes, symptoms and tips to cope.

Older adults often have many major changes happen in a short period of time. Through life’s changes, grief can start to affect our emotional and physical health as well as our day-to-day activities. I tell my patients that we can all get through grief, especially when we understand that it’s normal and not a medical problem.

Grief is a normal part of life

The pain of loss is significant and can feel overwhelming. Many difficult and unexpected emotions will emerge. You’ll feel the pain of grief physically, and it can be a challenge to cope with daily activities. These are all normal reactions to loss. Everyone experiences grief differently, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. But there are ways to cope and ease your pain so you can move forward with your life.

Common causes and symptoms of grief

These types of situations can make you feel sad, isolated or that you’re not contributing to daily living:

  • Loss of a loved one through death or moving away
  • Physical changes that affect your strength, vision, hearing or endurance
  • Changes to your independence like no longer driving or cooking
  • Fewer social interactions
  • Loss of financial security

You may experience any of these symptoms:

  • Emotional reactions, such as shock, anger, disbelief, guilt and profound sadness
  • Physical pain, such as headache, tightness in the throat or body aches
  • Difficulty sleeping, eating or thinking clearly

How to cope with grief

Grief is difficult but often the symptoms go away in a few months. Long-term grief can lead to depression, so it’s important to get helping recovering. Here are ways you can cope with grief:

  • Take as much time as you need to heal.
  • Talk about signs of grief. You may or may not be aware of how you are grieving. Ask others if they see emotional, physical or behavior changes in you.
  • Spend time with others to deal with feelings of loneliness.
  • Talk about the loss. Share memories of a lost loved one or discuss changes in your life. If you’re dealing with more than one loss at a time, talk about each loss separately. It may help you feel less overwhelmed and able to cope better.
  • Reinforce healthy behaviors: get exercise, eat healthy foods, avoid alcohol use, and socialize with friends and interest group or faith communities.

Watch for signs of depression

In most cases, someone who is grieving doesn’t have a medical diagnosis of depression. If symptoms of grief last longer than two months, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor. Your doctor may:

  • Review your medications to see if there are side effects for depression
  • Evaluate your blood pressure, thyroid and kidney functions to make sure they are stable and not affecting emotional health
  • Prescribe counseling or a short course of antidepressant medicine if symptoms are severe

If you seek care from a health professional, rest assured that Medicare provides some mental health coverage.

  • Medicare Part A helps cover care if you’re in a hospital for mental health treatment
  • Medicare Part B helps cover outpatient mental health care
  • A Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Plan helps pay the costs of outpatient prescription drugs you may need (if you have a Part D plan)
  • Medicare Advantage, Medicare Cost and Medicare Supplement plans often have more coverage with set copays for doctor or specialist visits

Support to move forward

Remember that you’re not alone through grief. Read more about coping with grief in these helpful articles:

  • Tom von Sternberg, MD, is the Senior Medical Director of Geriatrics, Home Care, Hospice and Case Management for HealthPartners. He has been practicing as a geriatrician for over 30 years. He offers a wealth of knowledge as a contributor to the HealthPartners UnityPoint Health blog.


    See more posts by Dr. Tom >

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