Loss is experienced differently by everyone. However, we know that some factors tend to impact certain groups of people in specific ways. Older adults, or those who are age 65 and up, make up a group that shows some common patterns. You may be a child, friend, or neighbor of an older person who has lost their animal companion and you are looking for ideas to support them in their grief. Or, you may be an older adult yourself and hoping to better understand your grief and your emotions and how to cope with them. In this two-part blog post, we will explore the unique experiences of older grievers and outline ways we can support them in light of these differences.
Part 1: What Sets Older Clients Apart?
Differences in social support
One of the ways that elders can be different is that they may be at a higher risk for isolation, with one-quarter of adults aged 65 and older considered by the Center for Disease Control to be socially isolated. There are many reasons for this. For example, older adults are more likely to live alone, to have lost friends or family, and to experience chronic illnesses or disabilities such as hearing loss that can limit their social engagement (CDC).
In addition, during the era of COVID-19, social connection is often limited even further due to the increased risks for this age group. Older adults are less likely to have access to the virtual supports that many of us have come to rely on, such as social media, Zoom calls, and virtual support groups.
Unique bonds with pets
Second, due in part to this first point, older adults may have a stronger, more interdependent bond with their pet than others do. A pet may serve as a senior’s primary companion, especially if they do not live with anyone else. Depending on the person’s needs, a pet may even provide support for physical well-being, such as reminding them to be physically active or to eat regularly throughout the day. Adding to this, pets can help owners stay alert to changes in their surroundings that they might otherwise miss – think of your dog who makes sure that you know when someone comes to the front door!
This stronger bond can mean that others in the pet owner’s life do not understand the intensity of their relationship with a beloved pet, nor the depth of their grief. This can intensify feelings of isolation.
Deeper connection to the end-of-life experience
Third, elders may connect to the end-of-life experience in a different way. Being in their twilight years themselves, they may relate strongly to a pet’s health struggles and end of life experience. Older pet owners may be living with similar diagnoses or making similar decisions for themselves, or other family members.
In addition, for many seniors, this may be their last pet, which can bring a heartbreaking sense of finality to the loss. This can make the loss of a pet feel even more profound, as it can be symbolic of a larger ending for them.
In our next post, we’ll share some ideas for supporting the older adults in your life through the loss of their pet. No matter how you’re able to support a griever in your life, know that your presence and compassion are valuable and truly matter.