Learning to Live Alone After Loss: Challenge and Opportunity
By Lisa M. Petsche
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When a loved one dies, many older adults face the challenge of learning to live alone - often for the first time. For those who have been part of a couple, this is a particularly big adjustment. Loneliness may be profound and difficult to overcome.
If you find yourself in this situation, here are some tips that can help.
Be kind to yourself
- Give yourself permission to feel all emotions that surface, including resentment and frustration. Recognize that there will be good days and bad days, and be extra good to yourself on the bad ones. Try not to dwell on the past - it only fosters self-pity and keeps you from moving forward.
- Prepare a list of things to do on the bad days. Include small indulgences to give you a lift as well as tasks or projects that will give you a sense of satisfaction (for example, de-cluttering various areas of your home).
- Look after your physical health. Eat nutritious meals, get adequate rest and exercise regularly. In addition to safeguarding your overall health, these measures will also help ward off depression.
- Take things one day at a time so you don't get overwhelmed. Plan your days so you don't have too much free time on your hands.
- If you don't like coming home to silence, leave the television or radio on when you go out.
Nurture your spirit
- Write down your thoughts, feelings and experiences in a journal, chronicling your journey of self-discovery and growth.
- Nurture your spirit by doing things that bring inner peace, such as meditating, praying, practicing yoga, reading something uplifting, listening to soothing music or spending time in nature.
- Get a pet. Cats and dogs provide companionship and affection and give you a sense of purpose. A dog also offers a measure of security and ensures that you'll get out of the house. (And while walking the dog, you might meet new friends.)
- Get out of the house every day. To combat isolation, join a dinner club, fitness center or exercise class.
- Sign up for an adult education course or lessons that interest you - for example, gourmet cooking, pottery or modern jazz. Be sure to check out any available programs at the local senior center or recreation center as well as those offered by educational institutions. Learning something new is energizing and boosts your self-confidence. And you might make new friends in the process.
- Get involved in your community. Volunteer for a neighborhood association, charitable or environmental cause, animal shelter or political campaign.
- Cultivate some solitary pastimes. Take up crossword puzzles, woodworking, gardening, writing or sketching. Learn to enjoy your own company - recognize that it's possible to be alone without feeling lonely.
- Take the initiative in calling friends and relatives to talk or get together. Instead of waiting for invitations, extend them.
Do nice things for others, especially those who are also going through a difficult time. This takes your mind off your own situation, boosts your self-esteem and strengthens relationships.
- Find at least one person you can talk to openly who will listen and understand, such as a close friend, spiritual leader or mental health worker.
- Join a bereavement support group. If it's hard to get out or you prefer anonymity, try an online forum instead.
If feelings of isolation persist, you might take in a boarder, share accommodations with a relative or friend, relocate to a condominium or apartment in a senior living community or, if your health is frail, move into a retirement home. Don't make such a major decision hastily, though - give yourself plenty of time.
If you were a caregiver through your loved one's illness and put your personal life on hold, now is the time to re-invest in yourself by resuming former interests and pursuing new ones. Don't forget to nurture neglected relationships as well as expand your social network.
Whether or not the death was anticipated, the reality of being on your own may initially seem overwhelming and perhaps frightening. But with time, patience, and trust in your resilience, you will successfully adapt to your new circumstances. You may even end up growing in ways you never imagined.
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.