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The Ocean of Grief – How does grief affect older people?

Dr Katrin Gerber, of the National Ageing Research Institute, has turned the spotlight on grief in older people. “In our society, older people are often overlooked, marginalised and even forgotten, especially when it comes to loss and grief. We want to change this. So our research focusses on older people and their unique needs.”

In her current project, Dr Gerber and her team from the Melbourne Ageing Research Collaboration want to find out how grief affects older people’s physical and mental health and whether they are receiving enough support through the healthcare system.

“Grief can be an isolating experience so we want to find out what older people need when they are grieving and how the healthcare system can help them in this difficult time. We’re capturing grief from the perspective of older bereaved people and are also including the views of general practitioners (GPs) and practice nurses who are caring for older people,” Dr Gerber explained.

“We don’t really know who older people talk to after a significant loss. Do they mainly speak to family members and friends, or do they also mention their grief to their doctor or nurse when they are coming in to have their blood pressure checked?”

Then on the other side of the equation, flipping the questions around to GPs and practice nurses, Dr Gerber would like to know how they deal with the needs of their grieving older patients. “We wonder, do questions about grief come up in day-to-day primary care practice – and is there room for this?”

It seems like such an obvious thing, doesn’t it? Older people, having lived so much longer than the rest of us, will be very familiar with grief and they will have buried more people they love than those who are younger.

“We tend to think that older people are well prepared to deal with the death of a loved one, because they are likely to have dealt with it before. But does this mean they’re better equipped for it now? That is one of the questions we are trying to answer,” Dr Gerber said.

What if, for example, the longer you’ve lived with a partner the harder it is: the life formed is more entwined with that of the other person. Even the rituals around waking up in the morning, getting breakfast would be completely enmeshed with someone else’s.

“For example, let’s think of a woman whose husband died after 60 years of marriage. That’s an entire lifetime. So what help does she need with her grief and how can we provide it? Unfortunately, it seems that this population is often overlooked and under-served,” Dr Gerber said.

“We are hoping to build on the data we collect, to identify gaps in the available bereavement system and create recommendations to be used by policymakers and potentially even governments.”

There are two approaches to Dr Gerber’s research, an interview and a survey component. “We gathered our in-depth interviews with older people very quickly. Many were eager to share their experiences with grief and loss. There was such diversity in their stories, from people who had adjusted to their grief to those who were still struggling after years. We are learning a lot from this.”

While the interviews with older people are completed, the research team is still looking to interview more GPs and practice nurses to talk about their experiences with grief in older people. “Interested primary care staff can contact me directly,” Dr Gerber said.

“We are also seeking more participants for our grief survey. It is open to anyone in Australia aged 65 years or older, who has encountered the death of a significant person in their lives at least six months ago or longer. Their loss could have been even several years ago. There is no maximum time limit.”

The survey is looking for patterns in how grief affects older people’s health, wellbeing and healthcare use. It can be accessed online via this link: www.bit.ly/grief-survey

Paper versions can be requested by contacting Dr Gerber directly (email: k.gerber@nari.edu.au or phone: 03 8387 2662).

“We are trying to draw more attention to older people and give their grief a voice,” Dr Gerber concluded. The survey takes about 20 minutes to complete and is open until mid-August. More information for GPs, nurses and older people is available here: https://www.nari.net.au/marc/research/mental-health-and-grief-older-people

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