Alzheimer’s and Death: How to Help a Surviving Senior Cope

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By Jackie Waters

Alzheimer’s and the death of a partner are devastating enough all on their own, but when the two major life changes happen at the same time, the aftermath is beyond heartbreaking. Many adult children have to deal with how to tell their surviving parent that their spouse has died -often over and over again, while also handling all of the decisions that must occur after this sad reality has set in.

Often the spouse of a person with Alzheimer’s tends to serve as a caregiver. When they pass away, not only has the surviving senior lost a life partner, but they have lost their life’s compass. There is no textbook solution to this agonizing situation. The best approach depends on many individual factors, but planning for some of these potential challenges can help make a smooth, peaceful transition for your surviving parent.

Difficulties with Alzheimer’s

Different stages of dementia come with different symptoms. Your surviving parent may have difficulty with short-term memory, which means you may have to confront the sad news repeatedly. If their long-term memory remains largely intact, then eventually, painful as the process will be, the tragic news becomes reality. For cases of moderately severe cognitive decline and beyond, the loss of a spouse is a daily conversation.

Helping your aging parent deal with the grief will be ongoing. You both will likely feel an overwhelming sense of frustration, anger, denial and sadness. Create a plan to communicate the loss honestly and openly. Try to answer all questions as best you can, even when they are hard. You can also ease the process by sharing memories and stories to help comfort your mourning parent. Remember that you never have to go through this alone -- talking to a mental health professional can help the grieving process for you and your parent.

Downsizing or Moving

After your parent has passed away, it may be safer for your surviving senior with Alzheimer’s to move into a smaller home or receive constant care at a senior facility. Not only will you have to help them deal with the loss of their loved one, but now they’ll have to deal with the loss of their home. Be sure to start with a plan, one that has a clear timeline and involves the surviving senior as much as they are cognitively able. Some ways to make this transition easier include:

  • Involving them in the decision-making process, especially when it comes to purging the deceased parents’ belongings.
  • Taking it in phases, to avoid the shock that can occur when big changes don’t seem to happen all at once.
  • Addressing any hesitation or resistance while touring houses, apartments and facilities.

Transition to a New Caregiver

If the deceased spouse was the primary caregiver, the transition to a new one may be traumatic and frustrating for your parent with Alzheimer’s. When you interview new caregivers, be sure to include the senior and let them ask their own questions, if possible. Be very specific in your caregiver search that you are looking for someone with experience providing care after the death of a spouse. You may also need to consider upgrades to the home or moving to a new house that can accommodate hired care.

As the primary decision-maker for the senior with Alzheimer’s, you have a lot of responsibility ahead of you. There will be times when everything goes smoothly, and then days when you thought you had it all figured out -- only to have it come crashing down. You may even have to put your own grieving process aside to help your mourning parent. That’s why it’s so important that you prioritize your own emotional care, along with your loved one.

If you have questions or concerns pertaining to grief, we’d love to hear from you and share some resources. Contact Barritt Durbin, bereavement coordinator, at  330.498.8214 for more information.

About the Author:

Jackie Waters is a mother of four boys, and lives on a farm in Oregon. She is passionate about providing a healthy and happy home for her family, and aims to provide advice for others on how to do the same with her site