The death of a spouse is one of the most stressful and traumatic events that a person can experience, especially in old age. The surviving spouse may face many changes and challenges, such as loneliness, grief, health problems, financial issues, and loss of identity. As a family member, you may wonder how you can support the surviving parent during this difficult time and help him or her adjust to a new reality. There are some practical, emotional, and financial considerations that you should take into account when helping your parent cope with the loss of a spouse.
The first steps are the practical ones. You will, of course, help your surviving parent with the funeral arrangements and the legal matters. You can assist your parent with planning the funeral or memorial service, notifying relatives and friends, obtaining the death certificate, settling the estate, and closing accounts. You can also help your parent organize and sort through the belongings of the deceased spouse and decide what to keep, donate, or discard.
Next, set up a system of helping your surviving parent with the daily tasks and chores. You can start this process yourself, but ultimately, you may find professional homecare to be an appropriate option. These tasks involve helping with cooking, cleaning, shopping, paying bills, and managing medications. Other tasks with which he or she may need help are transportation, appointments, and errands.
You can also help your parent with living arrangements and, if appropriate, long-term care. You can help your parent decide whether to stay in their current home, whether to retain professional homecare, move to a smaller or more accessible place, or relocate to a senior living, assisted living community or a nursing facility.
Listen to your parent and acknowledge his or her feelings. Respect their choices and preferences. Your parent may have different ways of coping and grieving than you do. Do not judge them or pressure them to do things for which they are not ready. Let them set the pace and the boundaries of their recovery process. Provide a safe and supportive space for your parent to express emotions, such as sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, or relief. Validate their feelings and avoid minimizing or dismissing them. You can also share your own feelings and memories of the deceased spouse and let your parent know that they are not alone.
Encourage your parent to seek professional help if needed. You can help him or her find a grief counselor, a therapist, a support group, or a minister who can help them cope with the loss and grief. You can also watch out for signs of depression, such as persistent sadness, hopelessness, loss of interest, insomnia, appetite changes, or suicidal thoughts. You can urge medical attention if they show any of these symptoms.
Encourage your parent to stay connected and engaged with others by maintaining his or her social network and relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and community members. You can also help your parent find new activities and hobbies such as volunteering, traveling, learning, or joining a club. Should they choose to do so, respect your parent’s decision to date or remarry.
Help your parent review and update their financial records and analyze their situation. You can help him or her assess their income, expenses, assets, debts, and tax liabilities. You can also help your parent apply to receive any benefits or entitlements for which they may be eligible, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or Veterans’ Benefits. You can also help your parent create or revise a budget, financial plan, and estate plan.
Help your parent avoid scams and frauds. You can help your parent protect their personal and financial information from identity theft, phishing, or other fraudulent schemes. You can also help your parent avoid making hasty or impulsive financial decisions, such as giving away money, signing contracts, or investing in risky ventures. Advise your parent to consult a trusted financial advisor, lawyer, accountant, (or you) before making any major financial decisions.
Help your parent plan for their own end-of-life care and wishes. You can help him or her prepare an advance care plan, which includes documents such as a living will, a health care proxy, a do- not-resuscitate (DNR) order, and a power of attorney. Encourage your parent to communicate preferences and values regarding their medical treatment, palliative care, and funeral arrangements.
The death of a spouse is a life-changing event for an elderly person. As a family member, you can help your parent cope with the loss by providing practical, emotional, and financial support. You can show your love, care, and respect for your parent and help them find meaning and purpose in this time of transition. And do all of this while respecting and honoring your parent’s choices and wishes.