The Link Between Grief and Illness in Seniors

Grieving seniorDear Kirsten:

My father lives near me in Greeley, Colorado. I’m fortunate to be able to visit with him a few times a week. We lost my mother to a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease a few months ago,  and since then I’ve noticed my father’s health seems to be declining. He was her primary caregiver for over six years while Alzheimer’s slowly caused her to lose her physical and cognitive abilities.

I knew he would miss her terribly and he certainly does. I thought that after he caught up on his rest he would have time to get reacquainted with his friends and to pick back up on some of the hobbies he had to let go of in order to care for Mom. But he seems to be constantly battling a cold or an illness of one kind or another. He was never sick this much when my mother was still alive. And I just can’t seem to get him to leave the house. I’ve heard people say that when one spouse passes away the other sometimes dies of a broken heart. I’m starting to think this might really be true. I’m not sure what to do to help my Dad.


Dear Ellie:

Please accept my sympathies on your mother’s passing. Alzheimer’s takes such a toll on the entire family that I’m sure you and your father are both still trying to regain balance in your lives.

The scenario you’ve described sounds very familiar. People who work with older adults can likely share many examples of witnessing similar situations. A study on grief and the immune system published in Immunity & Ageing sheds some light on why that might be. In a nutshell, researchers believe it is because stress hormones respond differently to grief based on how old a person is. Because these hormones are the body’s infection-fighters, older adults’ immune systems are more at risk when they are grieving.

Here are a few suggestions that might help your father:


  • Talk with the bereavement team at hospice. Even if your mother wasn’t a patient, your father may still be able to join one of their support groups for grieving spouses. Having the opportunity to share his sorrow with people who can empathize can help.
  • Try to determine whether or not your father is eating a well-balanced diet. Healthy eating can help boost his immune system. If he is feeling sad and lonely, he might not be taking the time to cook like he should.
  • If you are able to arrange it, a weekend getaway together might help to lift your father’s spirits. Sometimes a change of scenery and seeing a few new sights can boost one’s mood.
  • Exercise is another way to improve mental health. The endorphins released during exercise are the body’s natural mood elevators. It can be as simple as you and your father making time to enjoy a brisk walk together a few times a week.


Finally, if you are concerned your father’s grief might be something more serious I would consider calling his primary care physician or encouraging him to make an appointment for a check-up.

I hope this information helps, Ellie! My best wishes to you and your father.


Need more advice on caring for your loved one with dementia? Contact us at 970.204.6977 today! From personal care needs and case management to guardianship concerns, Seniors in Transition provides consulting services to help families turn frustrating health care problems into quality, affordable solutions. Seniors in Transition is here to help families in the Fort Collins, CO and Loveland, CO areas.


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