“Life was terrible after my husband died… it took me a long time to get over losing him. I had been with him for a lifetime… it felt as if my life had finished.”
This heartrending quote from an 88-year-old woman called Mildred starkly illustrates the devastating impact that the death of a partner can have in older age. It is why Independent Age has spent a year exploring older people’s experiences of partner bereavement and the emotional, financial and practical impacts for the bereaved person.
We found that, every year in England, 192,000 people aged 65 and over are newly bereaved when their partner dies. As a result, many experience changes in their income, and feel more lonely or isolated (and older people who are carers for their dying partner are at risk of feeling lonely both before and after their partner dies).
Importantly, older people who have experienced the death of a partner are up to four times more likely to experience depression than older people who haven’t been bereaved, and are more likely to have worse mental health as a result of bereavement than working age adults. In fact, of the 192,000 older people described above, over 106,000 will experience the onset of depression.
We have been appalled that so many of these older people experiencing depression receive so little in terms of support and access to services that could make a huge difference to their wellbeing. We found that, despite the very large number of older people affected, they are less likely to be referred for bereavement support than bereaved people who are younger. Older people told us that they find it much more difficult to get access to support such as counselling or therapy, in many cases not even being told that it’s an option, and they can feel less deserving of it. This is a great shame because there is significant evidence that older people benefit more than working age adults from psychological therapies. However, fewer than 1 in 5 people aged 60 and over have received bereavement counselling.
This lack of support is unacceptable and can contribute to an even heavier reliance on family and friends, which means those without family and friends may not get any support at all. Ron, 92, from Kent, whose wife recently died after developing dementia, says, “The dementia nurse used to come and visit every two weeks to help me understand what dementia was and see if I was alright, but the day my wife died, that stopped, and then I had no-one at all. You need someone to talk to who understands and has all the knowledge of what is available to help you.”
Too many older people like Mildred and Ron are left to fend for themselves at a time when they are desperate for help. Independent Age firmly believes that this must end. Our research has shown that there needs to be a consistent approach to offering bereavement support across the country, so older people who need them can access services that can help them deal with death in their own way. We are therefore calling for, among other things, one body that regularly comes into contact with bereaved older people, for example funeral directors, to be responsible for providing information about services and support following the death of a partner or close family member. Every older person who experiences partner loss must be aware of the support options available to them and must be able to access the type of support with which they feel most comfortable.