When it comes to loss Priscilla Irving, 84, says she has seen more of her share over the years.
But the Portland resident does not want to talk about it, much less let it interfere with current plans.
“I’m very positive,” Irving said. “I’ve been through things, negative things, that have changed my life completely but you have to move on or you just get stuck.”
Irving, who is preparing for a sixth trip to Germany to visit her son, simply does not have time to dwell on the past.
“In the facility where I live there is one senior gentleman who always is asking me, ‘are you coming or going,’” Irving said. “I tell him, ‘I’m coming, but in 15 minutes I’ll be going.’”
That lifestyle of focusing on the positive in the wake of loss is something that can help prevent seniors from growing despondent over the loss of aging peers and loved ones.
“We have a resident that just turned 101,” Charlene Taggart, activities coordinator at Forest Hill Manor in Fort Kent, said. “She’s seen all of her friends are gone and over the past few years she has lost a lot of the residents [at Forest Hill Manor] that she really got along with.”
And while Taggart said the 101-year-old woman is coping with the recent losses, she is also expressing feelings of loneliness and grief.
“She is always talking about why was she left behind,” Taggart said. “She tells us she has already done her time on earth and she is ready to go.”
That level of grief is common among the elderly who suddenly find themselves with ever-shrinking circles of friends as their peers die, move away to be with their families or are placed in facilities due to age-related cognitive issues.
It is also a level of grief that is all-too-often discounted and ignored.
“Loss really hurts the elderly and it really alters how they go about life,” said Dr. David Prescott, assistant professor of healthcare at Husson University. “There is such a tendency for many of us that in the case of a high school student or young person losing a couple of friends to reach out, but with older people we are more like, ‘this is just how it goes.’”
Minimizing or, worse, ignoring the grief experienced by the elderly is one of the poorest approaches that can be taken, Prescott said.
“It’s really hard on them,” he said. “There has been quite a bit of research that tells us if people are not able to adapt and deal with loss in a healthy way, their own risk of death goes up.”
Prescott admits it can be a difficult conversation, but talking with an elderly loved one about a recent loss is a key component to helping them get through it.
“My belief is really people have the inherent ability to work through grief,” he said. “When things go badly is when that working through it gets blocked [and] there need to be a willingness on our parts to join in with them and allow them the pain of being sad [and] realize that is all part of the healing process.”
Regardless of age, Prescott said, the manner in which someone faces grief and loss is as individual as the person themselves.
“But it’s always easier with someone at your side,” he said.
For some it’s a matter of getting back on the social horse and making new friends.
“There is research that shows when it comes to making friends, older people are more pragmatic than younger,” Prescott said. “If they can move through the grief they are good at making new friends.”
That’s pretty much how Jeanne Douglas has dealt with loss of people in her life due to frequent moves over the years.
“I just make friends with younger people,” the 92-year-old former missionary said with a laugh, adding she has moved a great deal ever since leaving her home in England in her early 20s. “Ever since I got married I’ve been on the move. It got to the point I was not sad about moving because I got so used to it.”
Douglas did eventually set down roots of sorts in Freeport and has lived there for 17 years.
“I’m not one of those people you have to force out of their homes and try to be active [and] I have a list of people who volunteer to take me places and we do errands and have lunch,” she said. “So it’s really a very pleasant occasion when I ask one of them to drive me somewhere.”
Staying active in the face of loss is key, Taggart said, whether you are living in your own home or in a residential facility.
“For them, they have already lost so much and they are looking for a purpose to life,” Taggart said. “The elderly do expect friends to pass away and they understand life and death but that point in their lives they may already feel useless.”
That is why, she said, at Forest Hill they make sure every resident feels they have a purpose.
“We try to get them involved in activities they enjoyed when they were young,” Taggart said. “We have a few ladies who used to knit and now they are knitting again and selling those items.”
There are also organized fishing trips, cooking classes and a vibrant music program.
Being part of a community in a residential or assisted living facility can help with coping, said Sandra Nadeau, social worker at Borderview Residential Facility in Van Buren.
“They form bonds with other residents,” Nadeau said. “They can share past experiences that younger people just may not be able to relate to.”
At the same time, any loss suffered hits the elderly and should not be ignored.
“Their grief needs to be acknowledged,” Nadeau said. “I think definitely we get caught thinking just because they are older, they can more easily accept loss and that is just not the case.”
That is the exact attitude Prescott said friends and family need to address.
“It can be easy to underestimate the impact funeral after funeral can have on the elderly as they age,” he said. “It can be easy for them to isolate themselves as it is, and then loss can kick them into a slump that is even more severe.”
But when they get the support and help they need to create new social networks and are allowed to express their feelings of grief, the elderly are very resilient, Prescott said.
“If you can just get the setting right for them, everything else really takes care of itself,” he said. “They need to know it’s okay to feel the hurt of grief and that they have someone there ready to listen and let them work through it in the way that is best for them.”
As for Irving, she has no plans to let life’s valleys slow her down.
“Sometimes, there are things in life that just destroy you if you give up and let them,” she said. “But when I hear my grandchildren say, ‘how do you do you keep so active?’ I know I want to keep positive and be a good inspiration for them.”