In my recent visit to a retirement center in order to present on depression and grief, the residents educated me on the kinds of grief they experience as a matter of course. Perhaps the most important experiences of grief come from the radical change from living in your own home or apartment to a retirement or assisted living facility. Mental or physical slippage, accidents, forgetfulness create the necessity for such changes, but the change is nevertheless profound. A person must leave behind their former life in order to begin a new life. Newer furnishings and residents as new friends, however, cannot replace familiar books, beds, and rugs, but especially old friends, and perhaps even family, who are now too distant. People long for what they left. They grieve. Although we are in Oregon, one resident in the group introduced herself as “from Tulsa.” Think of the disruption!
Another major source of grief from disrupted relationships derives from the very strict privacy laws. As a result, a new friend in the next room can just disappear. He or she may have died, had an episode of mental illness, or simply been moved for some other reason to another facility. But, Because of HIPAA (the Health Insurance Accountability and Portability Act) other residents cannot be informed of what happened! That is now legally privileged information to be shared only with family or with those who have been specifically named. Staff members who do know what happened, are not permitted to share that information. “Is _______ still alive?” someone wanted to know. How, then do the residents maintain a sense of community, of friendship, or of trust?
No Easy Answers
“I lost my partner of 20 years,” said one resident. “I don’t know where she is.” This person grieves because taking up residence in this facility abruptly severed a long-term personal relationship. While not a common experience, to the people involved, the loss is quite painful.
With his smile, meds, and dietician, the man in the picture seems very happy. And perhaps he is. But easy answers don’t satisfy. Talking about these griefs in an atmosphere of safety enables people to validate their feelings, to share with others, and support each other. “Am I crazy?” “Should I feel this way?” they want to know. Who knew the downsizing would be so difficult? But constant downsizing is almost a definition of old age, with losses of function, of independence, and of relationships. “Growing old is not for the faint of heart,” runs the proverb.
Since we all will go through this phase, we could think through what such losses would mean to us. But also think of what would help to provide our life with vitality to offset the difficulties. What would continue to give your life meaning, purpose, and direction even with its limitations and griefs?
[Picture Source: Brookdale Senior Living Solutions]