Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Loneliness, Disorientation Challenge Newly Widowed

By MARK PATTISON, CNS | Published May 27, 2004

When your spouse dies, it’s disorienting enough to deal only with the funeral preparations and the grief and mourning that follows.

When your spouse dies and you are a senior citizen, the disorientation can be magnified because of the longer number of years spent together.

Even in an interdependent marital relationship, the surviving spouse is left trying to perform tasks not done in a very long time.

Then there is the loneliness. Americans live longer, so husbands and wives are living together longer. For seniors, the death of a spouse brings with it the prospect of having to live longer alone.

One major criterion determining how a widowed person recovers from the death of his or her spouse is their “connectedness” to the larger community, according to Joan McConnell, a senior specialist for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“It depends on how connected they are with their friends, with their neighborhood, their families,” said McConnell, a senior herself. Of the seniors referred to her agency, “we find they’re not well-connected,” she added.

McConnell said that seniors with whom she works do little blaming of God for leaving them alone. “They’re seniors, and they know that to live is to die. And if you live a long time, you know that you’re going to die. I often hear they’re sad that they didn’t go first.”

The grief that can pervade one’s life after being widowed often manifests itself in poor eating habits, a general lack of tidiness and continuing worry about one’s self, according to McConnell.

Even if a couple was frugal in life together, “a funeral puts a strain on the budget,” she said. “Most seniors live just on Social Security,” which usually means that they have to live on less than they are used to, even not counting the increasing costs of medications, she added.

Those not referred to Catholic Charities and other agencies may be well connected to family, friends, parish and the community at large. But there are ways to establish more and strengthen connections in their lives.

In Chicago, police “senior officers” in every district can make what McConnell terms “well-being calls” if a senior hasn’t been seen in awhile. And while not every police force can have the luxury of that kind of staffing, there are other methods to engage seniors who are living by themselves.

Some senior citizens’ residences have floor captains who check in on their floor mates or other methods to make sure those living there have contact with others on a regular basis.

Senior citizen centers are a way for seniors to enjoy food and fun in each other’s company. Chicago’s Catholic Charities operates some centers, McConnell noted, adding that “even the picking up and driving them somewhere engages them more than” usual.

Nor should it be left to seniors themselves to look out for each other. Family and neighbors can contribute greatly to a senior citizen’s sense of connectedness.

Making telephone calls, ringing a doorbell, offering to do a chore that a less-mobile senior would find difficulty doing individually are things McConnell recommended that most people can do to keep seniors “connected to the web of life.”