Learning To Live
By Anuradha Varma
Losing your partner in your twilight years is tough, says Anuradha Varma, but you need to move on.
Losing a spouse can be tough, that too when you are no longer young. Known as the Widowhood Effect, it leaves surviving spouses feeling lonely, lost and depressed.
Experts say that dependence on a spouse begins to increase once the children grow up and leave home. Losing a spouse means losing a confidante and companion. Clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany explains, "I hear many people say that they don't know who to share their problems with anymore. They feel the children are busy with their own families and work. They feel that no one can take the place of a spouse."
Those who lose a partner in their twilight years, she adds, "go through extreme loneliness and depression, which could lead to physiological problems. There is also insecurity that accompanies advanced age."
A time of great stress
Research shows that immense grief may cause many to die within three years of their spouse's passing away. Elderly care-giving spouses are at a 63 per cent greater risk of death than older people not caring for their mates, according to the American Medical Association.
In a study involving 58,000 married couples, researchers at St Andrews University found that 40 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men died within three years of their partner. A study published in the Internal Medicine Journal in 2009 also reported that such bereavement can cause elevated heart rates, particularly during the early weeks.
Lack of will to live
Shweta (name changed) remembers her father, in his late 70s, losing the will to live after her mother died. Any effort to elevate his mood remained unsuccessful. He passed away a year later. Another elderly gentleman in his 90s was leading an active lifestyle, but the death of his wife saw his health deteriorating. At times, even having a large family around doesn't help the grieving spouse.
Remarks psychiatrist Anjali Chhabria: "For some time, the partner may need some time and space to deal with the grief. Old memories hound you for a while, since you have spent almost your entire life with that person and shared everything, emotionally and physically, which makes the absence unbearable. You meet people or go to places which remind you of your spouse. Elderly couples report they don't feel like living themselves after their partner's loss. However, avoiding and isolating yourself is not an appropriate solution."
Support structures play a crucial role here. Points out Chhabria, "Handling your spouse's responsibilities and liabilities once the person is no more causes more stress. Picking up the pieces without your partner may not be easy. However, dealing with loneliness, emptiness and the depression is most important."
People who are still active and independent tend to move on faster than the ones who have been financially and emotionally dependent on their spouses. How can one survive such loss? One way is to stay occupied and gain independence. Chhabria adds, "Spiritual discourses can help some become emotionally stronger. Actively participating in senior citizens' groups may help in forming new friendships. Health is of prime importance, so morning walks, temple visits, catching up with old friends should be encouraged."
Seema recommends, "One should try to cultivate hobbies like playing cards or doing social work. Building bonds with grandchildren also helps; help them with their homework or attend PTA meets."
Meet your peer group
Old age can be especially tough for those who lack meaningful attachments and feel isolated by society, trapped in a cycle of loneliness and lack of dignity. Faced with hopelessness, death seems welcome. Astrologer Bejan Daruwalla, who is now pushing 80, says, "Many times, senior citizens feel completely betrayed. They feel they have been let down, done in, by those they had nurtured when they were younger and had the strength to do so."
An encounter with Dignity Foundation showed Bejan that there was hope for the elderly. The Foundation, which works for empowerment of senior citizens, also runs a companionship programme for them in Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Pune. Its founder Sheelu Srinivasan says, "We have volunteers, also seniors, who visit individuals in their homes. We get requests from many young people to help seniors living at home. Interaction with a peer group is very important. A person who loses a spouse at this stage in life can be very lonely. Sharing stories with similar people, giving vent to their emotions, rescues them from the brink of hopelessness." They also organise regular daily sessions of activities such as yoga, meditation and Tai Chi termed 'Kalyan Mitrata' on the Buddhist principle of "welfare for all," encouraging bonds with deep empathy.
Ultimately, it's all about relearning how to enjoy the little joys of life! ____________________________________________________________
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