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Losing a spouse, especially one who was the primary caregiver, is one of the hardest experiences in life. When the person suffering the loss has Alzheimer’s or dementia, it can make the experience even more challenging. While the needs of a grieving individual are the same regardless of the presence of Alzheimer’s, people with dementia experience bereavement in a range of ways that depend on the person’s personality and cognitive difficulties, which can present unique challenges.
Sharing the Information
When someone with dementia loses a loved one, you must decide whether or not to share the information and how many details to provide. The best solution depends on the individual and his or her distinctive circumstances. Consider discussing the situation with professionals, including the primary care provider, dementia expert, and a mental health professional. Regardless of the decision, it’s crucial to acknowledge and support the person’s emotional responses.
Not telling the person prevents the grieving process from occurring and may lead to feelings of fear or lack of support when the spouse stops visiting without explanation. On the other hand, some individuals may not be able to fully process the information and can become distressed. Keep in mind that the individual is likely to still feel the intense emotions of grief, including loneliness, shock, guilt, anger, and more.
When telling the individual about the spouse’s passing, provide the information clearly and simply. Avoid euphemisms like “passed away,” and don’t give too much information at once. Provide ample time for the conversation and remain supportive. Having support for yourself is also important. Try a different approach if the person becomes too distressed.
Providing Support During Bereavement
Acknowledge feelings, which can range from profound shock and a sense of bewilderment to an inability to understand the loss despite a strong emotional impact. Encourage self-expression and allow the person to talk about the spouse. Reminiscence can be helpful for those with dementia. If the spouse was the main caregiver, the significance of the loss is amplified. The person with Alzheimer’s is likely to need extra support, guidance, and assistance.
Like many other grieving individuals, someone with Alzheimer’s may find comfort in spiritual beliefs, such as prayer, meditation, or other faith practices. Consider creative outlets, such as art and music, which are often used for self-expression and engagement in Alzheimer’s patients.
Providing an object that reminds him or her of the spouse can help with feelings of connectedness and reminiscence, which is why it’s important to carefully sort through the deceased spouse’s belongings to decide what to keep, give to other family members, or donate. You don’t want to toss something that could help in the grieving process. Starting with the kitchen and working your way through the home room by room is the best approach, but sorting personal items in each room will be difficult. It’s best to go with your gut instinct when sorting.
Reminding Your Loved One about the Spouse’s Death
At times, the person with dementia may forget that the spouse has died, which can be difficult for family and friends who are coming to terms with the death. The individual may react as though he or she is hearing it for the first time and may experience the emotions all over again. He or she may also confuse the recent loss of a spouse with a previous loss of a parent or other loved one.
How to handle reminders will depend on the individual. For some people, a gentle reminder is helpful, but for others, any reminder can be very upsetting. Remain patient and responsive. “Recognizing and focusing on the person’s emotional state can make knowing what to say easier,” suggests Alzheimer’s Society. For those in the later stages of dementia, reminders that the spouse has died are unlikely to work and can cause high levels of distress. Avoiding reminders may be advisable in these circumstances.
Supporting a person with Alzheimer’s who has lost a spouse can present many challenges, especially if the spouse was the main caregiver. However, there are ways that family, friends, and new caregivers can help the person to feel safe and supported. From the way that the information is shared to handling reminders of the death, support should be provided in a patient and caring way that’s also unique to the person’s individual situation.