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The Widowhood Effect

In my past blogs, I usually discuss being young and the obstacles that come with so-called "adulting." However, being home in Texas with family for the holidays has given me a reminder of the inevitable signs of old age. In the past two years, I have unfortunately lost two grandfathers, both of which left a spouse behind. My grandmothers’ health seemed to be doing well when they lost their husbands. While maybe for a short time we were more focused on one spouse than the other, their passing put a light on the widower, and it became suddenly clear that old age was beginning to take over. When researching quotes about aging, only one truly captured what I was thinking. Emily Dickinson said, "Old age comes on suddenly and not gradually as is thought.“ It seems like both my grandmother’s mental and physical health declined more drastically in the time following their spouses' death than at other times in their life. This phenomenon is known as the widowhood effect, in which older people who have lost a spouse have an increased risk of health concerns. It is unclear as to why this is, but in my opinion, it's a result of a broken heart and the psychological toll it carries on everyone in different ways. Beginning this job, I thought it would be about finances, investments, and markets, which it is in fact, but what I did not realize was the emotional aspect that is really the most critical element of the job. Out of all our clients, I have a particularly special place in my heart for those who go through this. Regardless of age or the amount of money one has, I have noticed in my personal life and in my career the need to help prepare and support a loved one for losing their spouse.

Preparing your spouse

While there is no solution to a broken heart, there are ways to help prepare loved ones to help ease the pain and loss of someone. While generations and times have changed, it is not standard in modern times for the man to be the dominant breadwinner while the woman stays home, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children. This dynamic was prevalent for the current elder generations during their time. However, the issue with this is that when a woman is left alone after her spouse dies, the finances, such as the mortgage payments, utilities, and taxes, are all on her.  When a husband is left behind, it seems like learning to cook, clean, and even go to the grocery store can be challenging. It can be overwhelming to suddenly be responsible for anything you have never dealt with before, especially in the midst of coping with grief. Regardless of age, take part now and prepare your loved ones for success in the event something happens, whether it's estate planning, insurance, retirement, grocery shopping, paying bills, cleaning and cooking, or anything.  Many aspects come to the basics of living a safe and peaceful lifestyle.  

Supporting a Widower

While preparing may be one thing, supporting someone experiencing the widowhood effect can be challenging. I have found three primary ways that can be effective in supporting a widower that I hope can be helpful to anyone reading this.   

Take care of yourself 

If you are a caretaker for anyone going through widowhood, especially combined with old age, you must take care of your mental health and be sure to lean on your family for help. Frustration and anger are inevitable consequences of someone experiencing pain and loss, and often people take it out on the ones they love most. While helping someone else cope, you may suffer from a broken heart and need to remember to prioritize and establish boundaries. Talking to your friends who are experiencing the same things with their family can be a way of coping for yourself or learning how to better help your loved one.

Use Technology

Apart from the simple things, there are other advanced ways to help your loved ones, such as getting iPhones, Ring doorbells, life alert necklaces, and utilizing “find my iPhone” GPS features. There are many ways to have food delivered, check the movements of an elder, provide them with streaming services for entertainment, etc. Recently my own family has utilized air tags for my grandmother who loses her keys often. We use Ring doorbells to make sure she is safe, and no one enters unexpectedly. I got my grandmother a dementia clock for Christmas, which has the date, am and pm, time, and day of the week in big letters so that she can see and be reminded of her time better. While someone experiencing old age may not be tech-savvy, you can still equip their household or devices with helpful tools.

Call Your Loved Ones

In the weeks before my grandfathers passings, my grandfathers told their kids (my mom and dad) that they loved them and appreciated all they had done. Neither one of them will ever forget or not wish that they could hear those words one more time. So, the best strategy in supporting someone is to spend quality time with them in any way possible. In 2014, the actor J. K. Simmons won an Oscar for his performance as Terrence Fletcher in Whiplash, and in his speech, he said, "Call your mom, call your dad. If you're lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call them. Don't text. Don't email. Call them on the phone. Tell them you love them, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you. Thank you. Thank you, Mom and Dad." While I don't live in Texas, I still try to call my parents and grandparents as much as possible, and with FaceTiming, I can even see them. Make an effort to be with your loved ones, it's the best medicine in the world, and you usually never regret it when you do. 

Overall, starting to understand that people don't live forever is an incredibly harsh reality to grasp. We must be thankful for what every day brings us and for the days it brings with our loved ones. We must cherish the memories, both past and current, and remember, "Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened." — Dr. Seuss.   

 ~ Claire Olmstead