If there is one thing that is inevitable in life, it’s that we get older and eventually die. But how we choose to go through this game we call life is what can define us in the end. I remember a story about an elderly woman. Her name was Margaret Lundebjerg. She passed away at age 96. But for four years before she passed away, Margaret went through a slow, long decline. The part of aging that no one wants to talk about is that same decline.
Margaret was suffering from arthritis. This made it extremely difficult for her to move around at such an old age. Her cognitive functions were also declining, so she needed constant help to perform her daily activities. Day by day, Margaret became more fragile and isolated. Margaret’s daughter, Nancy, said it was difficult to watch her mother’s life become diminished. Nancy is the CEO of the American Geriatrics Society. Anguish is the part of aging that is rarely discussed, along with grief.
The only time that anguish and grief are recognized is after a loved one passes away. But serious illness and frailty can contribute to significant losses over time. This could lead to sadness and grief for a number of years. Now, if we dig a little deeper, the loss of independence could be marked by needing a walker or a wheelchair to move. For the elderly, this could mean that they cannot do certain things they cherish. For example, cooking holiday dinners. Everyone remembers going to their grandparent’s house for holiday dinners. These memories can be especially tough for adults and grandchildren who have to witness the decline of a loved one.
Unfortunately, the healthcare system does not help families deal with the deterioration of function. It also doesn’t help families deal with suffering as well, according to Dr. John Rolland – professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. He is also the author of the book Families, Illness and Disability: An Integrative Treatment Model.
With that said, below you will find advice that is given by Rolland and several of his colleagues. They explain how to deal with tough emotions that arise with serious illnesses and frailty.
You Must Acknowledge Your Feelings: The moment that you receive the news that a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness is when grief begins. But according to Tammy Brannen-Smith, who is the director of grief and loss services at Pathway’s, the grief does not stop there. For instance, the moment that a loved one is unable to take care of their finances or use the stairs, new grief will begin. Brannen-Smith urges people acknowledge their feelings and realize that they are normal. Everyone goes through this type of grief.
Speak Openly: Even though it is tough to deal with, families should never ignore talking about a loved one’s illness or frailty. When they avoid the conversation, the person suffering from the condition can become isolated from the family and relationships may suffer. Rolland explains that when he works with couples who are dealing with certain diseases, he asks them to write down things they want to talk about. He says that over 75% of the topics overlap. He also mentions that most people are relieved that they don’t have to keep things bottled up inside.
Be Sensitive When Communicating: If a loved one is suffering from a brain tumor, their thinking can become altered. In many cases, it will completely wipe their memories. Abigail Levinson Marks, who is a psychologist in San Francisco, says that people with these conditions would hate to know that you don’t see them as the same person. So what happens is the truth is buried. But Marks urges people to share what each person is going through. She also urges people not to worry about protecting each other. For example, if someone is suffering from dementia, it could help to explain to them that you’re sad that there are things in the past that we can’t remember. Or if you’re dealing with someone who has recently had a stroke, it would be helpful to encourage them to open up. Ask them to tell you how they feel about losing their independence. It will allow them to get some anger and frustration out and talk to someone who is willing to listen.
Get Closer: Everyone responds differently when they learn that someone close to them is suffering from an illness. In some occasions, people can’t deal with the stress and end up distancing themselves. Other people may visit the person but will focus on certain tasks instead of connecting emotionally. According to Barry Jacobs, a psychologist in Pennsylvania, people should attempt to get closer to the suffering person. The reason is that people begin to feel regret once that person passes away. Which is why it’s important to utilize the time you have left with that person. Not only will it help with the grief, but it will also bring you closer to the person.
Look For Support: It’s alright to grieve alone at times, but it’s important not to go through all of it alone. Seeking support from family and friends is essential. Ultimately it will help shape how you deal with a loved one’s death. Lundebjerg explains that when her mother passed away, she found peace. The fact that her mother was ready to move on made it easier for her to deal with the loss.
I remember when I lost my grandfather; it was a very tough process. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s and each time I would visit him would be a different experience. At the beginning, it would frustrate me when he wouldn’t remember who I was. But by seeking support from my friends and family, I realized that although his memory is not the same, he is still the same person who took me fishing and taught me about good morals. From there, our conversations would be about things he did remember, whether it involved me or not.