by Amy Natt, MS, CMC, CSA
Q: My mom passed away about a year ago and I have noticed that my dad is still not getting out of the house very often. He is surviving on frozen dinners and the news channel. He has become increasingly more negative and we just don’t know how to help him. Any ideas?
A. Grief is a very personal journey for each person. Losing a spouse can be particularly difficult for older adults, as routines are typically well established during retirement years. It is also a reminder of our own mortality and many older adults just don’t feel like they have the motivation to start over and establish new routines. They go the simple route, like frozen dinners. There can be a tendency to shut others out and self-isolate. Also, men tend to grieve differently. They may not be as comfortable openly expressing feelings. They are accustomed to being the provider and taking charge. They may feel they need to remain strong in dealing with the loss of a spouse and not want to risk being a burden to other family members.
Your dad will need time to work through his grief and process the changes to his daily routine. Family members can help by establishing a new routine as well. Perhaps there is a set day of the week that you can call your dad. If you live nearby, perhaps designate a lunch date once a month. Look ahead to holidays and special events and encourage him to put these plans on a calendar so that he has something to look forward to. Depending on the circumstances, it may also be appropriate to encourage friends to reach out. Specifically, those who may have also lost a spouse. If he was a caregiver for your mom, those relationships may have taken a back seat to his role as caregiver.
If your dad belongs to a faith community, there may be someone available to talk with him. He might be more comfortable talking to someone one-on-one or in a small group specific to men. There are a lot of resources out there, but you want to be careful not to overwhelm him. Try putting together an email or typed sheet of paper with the local resources you’ve identified and leave that with him. Think about things your dad might have liked to do in past years. Perhaps there is something he can tap back into. As time passes, you can encourage volunteer or community opportunities, but you want him to take the time to grieve and not fill his time with activities in an effort to avoid his feelings. Cards and notes can also be helpful and less intrusive than in-person visits that he may not be up for.
About those frozen dinners and the news channel — that combination would take a toll on any of us. Today we have a lot more resources for healthier prepped meals. Find out what local grocery stores and delivery services offer. You could also offer to come once a month to do some cooking and portion out healthier meals to put in his freezer. Sometimes a caregiver, friend or even an established cleaning service might be able to help with meal prep and clean up. Try introducing your dad to Netflix or drop by some classic DVDs he might enjoy watching. Humor can be very therapeutic, so go for something funny. Music can also be very uplifting, so make sure he has a music player at home and some favorite CDs he can play in place of always having the television on. He is probably using the TV to keep some background noise in the house. If you continue to see a decline and have more serious concerns or feel like he is dealing with depression or physical symptoms of his grief, you may need to reach out to his medical provider for evaluation. All of these things are changes and take time. Be consistent and let him know you love him and support him through this transition in his life.
Readers may send questions to Amy Natt, an Aging Life Care ProfessionalTM, certified senior advisor and CEO of Aging Outreach Services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.