Understanding the Aging Process: Helping Your Aging Parent Cope with Loss (Part 4 of 4)

At The Reutlinger, we are experts in the aging process and strive to educate our residents, future residents and adult children about what to expect as a parent ages. In this four-part series, we explore the aging process and provide tips to help adult children navigate and manage these changes.

Our lives are marked by constant change. Graduating college, finding employment, getting married, becoming a parent – all these and more are the milestones by which we measure our lives. As we age, we find ourselves changing as well, sometimes in large ways and sometimes in smaller but no less significant ways, retiring, moving into a senior community or requiring caregivers. The change that comes with age is often defined by a sense of loss: loss of identity, purpose, independence, mobility, functionality – all these things and more add up to a shifting reality.

“Seniors are bombarded with constant change, from the physical and emotional to mental and situational,” says Andrea Campisi, Marketing and Admissions Director of The Reutlinger, a Continuing Care Retirement Community in Danville, CA. “Caregivers and loved ones play an important role in helping seniors and aging adults work through these difficulties and reaching acceptance of their new reality. There’s a grieving process that must be worked through in order to get to the other side to cope with and accept these everyday losses.”

The Stages of Grief

Many of us are familiar of the Five Stages of Grief developed by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross . These stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – were originally developed to explain the grieving process that an individual goes through when dealing with a terminal diagnosis.

“We usually associate the five stages of grief with dealing with external losses, like the death of a parent or loved one,” says Campisi. “However, Kübler-Ross never intended them to be used in that way. The stages were specifically developed to deal with personal, individual journeys of loss, whether that be the diagnosis of a terminal illness or something smaller, like not being able to drive in the evenings anymore. At The Reutlinger Community, we’ve found that these stages of grief can be used to help seniors internalize and accept the everyday personal losses they face as they age.”

Our society generally doesn’t tend to view everyday losses and transitions as something that should be grieved over. How many times have you heard someone say this: “Just get over it!” or “It’s not so bad – other people have it so much worse! What are you complaining about?” or “It’s time to move on!” In order to transition in a healthy way, we need to give our aging parents and other loved ones the space and the ability to adequately grieve these small but important losses and get to the other side.

The Stages of Grief for Everyday Losses

Here’s an example of how an aging parent may exhibit the five stages of grief as they’re experiencing an everyday loss, like mobility issues.

  • At first, your parents may react as if everything is fine. “I can do this myself! I don’t need help!” they may say as they refuse the help you’ve offered. It’s easy to view this as simply being stubborn or not facing facts, but denial stems from fear of the unknown. What does it mean if they accept they need help? Will they be forced to leave their home or give up something they love, which is another loss on top of this loss? It’s frightening and vulnerable, which is why the first reaction is to sweep it under the rug, so to speak.
  • As the issue can no longer be easily ignored, your parent may experience outbursts of anger as their body continues to betray them. This can result in anger at completely unrelated things, or they start to “fly off the handle” more easily. They may blame others for issues, or begin saying things like “It’s not fair!” While it seems counterintuitive, the best way to move forward is by encouraging them to embrace the anger and express it instead of trying to mitigate it or calm them down. The more your parents can feel that anger, the sooner they will be able to work through it and move forward.
  • “I’ll let someone come and help for a day a week, but I won’t give up my car!” If a phrase like that sounds familiar to you, that means your parents have entered the “bargaining” stage of grief. They’re trying to negotiate and regain a semblance of control over the situation. It can be frustrating for you as their child to have them do this “halfway acceptance” because in many ways they’re still in denial about the problem. If your parents are in this stage, it’s important to listen to them and accept the terms they can offer, no matter how ridiculous or small they may seem.
  • Depression. Depression has often been defined as “anger turned inward.” This manifests in feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, abandonment and loss of purpose. Your aging parents may seem dull and apathetic, not experiencing any interest or joy in the things they love to do. The most important thing you can do for them is to listen, to be there and let them know you care and they’re not alone. Medications and therapists may be able to help lessen the severity of this stage.
  • Acceptance. Oftentimes we see this stage as a destination, but it’s actually more like a beginning. At this point, your aging parent may finally accept that they need help and begin making plans and changes to address the new normal. However, it’s important to note that true acceptance takes time, and it’s possible your loved one will be accepting one day and then bounce back to another stage of grief the next. Eventually, though, your aging loved one will be able to face their new reality with honesty and acceptance and move forward.

How You Can Help Your Aging Parents Cope with Loss

The five stages of grief are not a rigid progression and can easily shift back and forth for a long time. As an adult child, it’s more important to think of them as guidelines for how your aging parent is feeling. By understanding what they are feeling and going through, you can better assist, support and help them through this journey.

The biggest gift you can give your parents at this time is acknowledgement. Our first reaction when there’s an issue is to provide advice, or try and fix it or, even worse, try to take over because we “know better”. But what your parent needs at this time more than anything is acknowledgement of their pain and what they’re feeling. Although it seems like something small and simple, it’s the biggest thing you can do to help make things better.

Here are some ways you can show your acknowledgement and support of your aging parents’ struggles:

  • Give them the space they need to be sad without attempting to cheer them up. It’s painful to experience loss, but it’s okay to let things hurt for a while.
  • Remind them as much as possible that it’s okay to grieve, and that it takes time – as much as they need.
  • Listen to them and allow them to vent their emotions and feelings as much as possible.
  • Tell them you hear them, that you’re sorry for what’s happening and ask if they would like to talk about it.
  • Encourage them to grieve in whatever way they wish. Encourage them to seek out support groups so they can speak with others who’ve gone through similar issues.
  • Be there for them, and if you’re concerned about how they’re coping, speak to a medical professional to see what resources may be available.

Premier Senior Living, Dedicated Care

Offering assisted living, enhanced assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing and

rehabilitation, The Reutlinger Community provides a continuum of care that allows seniors to live a life-enhancing and stimulating environment. Located in Danville, California, The Reutlinger’s newly renovated 110,000 square foot community combines the comfort and familiarity of home with seasoned senior care and skilled nursing specialists to suit any seniors needs, allowing them to live the life they choose with freedom and security.

Because we specialize in a continuum of care, our residents never need to worry about leaving the community they call home or wonder what will happen when they need some more care. Residents and families alike can have peace of mind knowing that there are full-time licensed nurses available, along with activity coordinators, social workers, caregivers, a concierge and Rabbi who focus solely on helping each resident thrive. Even better, our services and amenities are equal to those of a state-of-the-art resort. This is the lifestyle and care that your loved one deserves.

At The Reutlinger, seniors have numerous opportunities to engage in award-winning programs that are designed to engage the mind, renew the spirit and provide opportunities to meet new people and learn something new. Whether residents are enjoying our art program and museum, listening to a lecture or educational program or attending spiritual programming and our wide range of activities, there’s something for each resident to love. Participate as much or as little as you like, the choice is all yours.

For more information or to schedule a personal tour, contact us today.