Widowhood Effect in the Elderly

The simple act of connecting with an elderly family member can make a profound difference to their life

Zahid visited his grandmother Sara’s grave to offer prayers. While in the graveyard, two tombstones caught his attention—one belonged to a husband and the other to his wife, resting side by side. The sight of delicate flowers adorning the burial site left an impression on him. Interestingly, the husband had passed away three years after his wife, with the date and month of their deaths coinciding.

Upon returning home, Zahid found himself pondering a series of questions. It was the first time he looked at his ailing grandfather, Abdul Ahad, with empathy and concern. Abdul Ahad, a retired private school principal, had seemingly been pushed to the periphery in his own home. Since his spouse’s passing, his son Ayub and daughter-in-law Rehana had failed to treat him with the honour and dignity he deserved. For Abdul Ahad, solace came in the form of an old radio set and the daily newspaper. However, Rehana abruptly cancelled the newspaper subscription, and when Abdul Ahad questioned this decision, he was met with hostility. Rehana berated him, accusing him of turning their house into a garbage bin. Ayub restricted his father’s freedom, citing health concerns, and rarely interacted with him kindly. Instead, he often spoke to him rudely and used him as an outlet for his frustrations. Rehana eavesdropped on Abdul Ahad’s phone conversations with relatives, further isolating him. One day, Abdul Ahad asked his nephew to take him to an eye hospital, as Ayub was busy with work commitments. Rehana conveyed this request to Ayub with a negative twist. In response, Ayub and Rehana confronted Abdul Ahad, subjecting him to their pent-up frustrations. The old man remained stoic, begging for forgiveness and even touching his son’s feet as a sign of humility. They confiscated his mobile phone, monitored his every move with suspicion, and made him the target of their frustrations.

Meanwhile, Zahid’s class teacher assigned him the task of writing about the “Pearls of wisdom based on the experiences of grandparents.” Zahid seized the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with his grandfather, Abdul Ahad, after a long hiatus. In these informal discussions, Abdul Ahad found a genuine companion in his grandson, and he shared his feelings without reservation. With tearful eyes, he revealed to Zahid how devastating the loss of his wife, Sara, had been.

Overwhelmed by grief, Abdul Ahad had neglected his own well-being. Self-care, sleep, meals, and medication had all become challenging. There was no one to patiently listen to his repeated stories or to greet him with a smile, as his beloved wife had done for 55 years. Abdul Ahad cherished the memories of their togetherness, often spending midnight hours looking at family photographs, silently shedding tears.

The simple act of connecting with an elderly family member can make a profound difference in their life. Over time, Zahid developed deep empathy for his grandfather, fulfilling his small needs—such as buying the morning newspaper—and offering medical assistance. Zahid also spent quality time with him, defending him when others remained passive. Abdul Ahad, once accustomed to daily shaving, had been told by Rehana that growing a beard was more suitable for his age. Zahid encouraged his grandfather to embrace his youthful spirit, resumed his daily shaving routine, and encouraged him to wear his preferred clothing. Together, they enjoyed daily walks in a nearby park, rekindling Abdul Ahad’s zest for life. The death of a loved one is always a profound loss, but losing a spouse after many years of companionship can be particularly challenging.

Numerous studies have highlighted the adverse effects experienced by surviving spouses, including sleep disturbances, depressive episodes, anxiety, compromised immune function, and overall declining physical health. Research led by Carey et al. has underscored the heightened mortality risk faced by senior citizens in the initial three months following their spouse’s demise, commonly referred to as the “widowhood effect.” During this period, there is an increased likelihood of cardiovascular events occurring. Additionally, survivors may be vulnerable to “broken heart syndrome” or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. Stress has a profound impact on the immune system, a phenomenon that holds true regardless of age. For grieving senior citizens, who may already have compromised immune systems, this heightened vulnerability increases the risk of infectious diseases. In cases of existing poor health, the likelihood of mortality becomes even more pronounced. Furthermore, research indicates that widows and widowers tend to exhibit more pronounced cognitive decline compared to those who have not experienced the loss of a spouse.

What can be done

Certain truths remain universal: time possesses the remarkable ability to heal. As resilient beings, humans can discover joy and newfound purpose in life even after enduring painful losses.

There’s no need to put on a brave front; seek the company of those who allow you to be genuine, without the need to pretend that everything is okay. Grief is an act of immense courage and strength, not a sign of weakness.

Prioritise self-care. Following the loss of a spouse, it’s common to lose interest in eating and cooking. However, ensuring your body receives the nourishment it requires is essential for moving forward. Adequate sleep, a balanced diet, and daily exercise can contribute to your overall well-being and help you navigate life’s changes.

Expect a wide range of emotions, not solely grief. Our feelings may fluctuate from sadness to anger, despair, and occasionally even glimpses of happiness. Allowing yourself to experience this emotional spectrum, rather than being consumed by perpetual sorrow, is vital. Avoid isolating yourself from others. Grief can be a lonely journey on its own. Make an effort to connect with friends and family who can provide support. Social connections have proven to be beneficial during the grieving process and can counteract the widowhood effect. If you know someone mourning the loss of their spouse, reach out to them, even if it’s just for a brief phone call.

Stay engaged and occupied. The loss of a life partner can disrupt your usual routines, leaving you with empty hours. Discovering new ways to fill your time can reignite your sense of purpose. Consider volunteering, pursuing new hobbies, or exploring part-time job opportunities if feasible. Rekindle your interest in reading by renewing your library membership and delving into those books you’ve been meaning to explore.

Offer emotional comfort to those grieving: Encourage open conversation when they are willing. Let them guide the discussion, be an attentive listener, and refrain from introducing potentially distressing topics. Even if they do not respond, assume that they hear you. Address them directly rather than discussing them in their presence. Avoid ignoring, interrupting, or dismissing their thoughts. Remain composed if they become confused or if they interact with someone who isn’t there. Above all, express your love and support.

Dr Zubair Saleem is a Senior Geriatric Consultant and Gerontologist and Dr Showkat Rashid Wani is a Senior Coordinator, Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir

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