Up to 77,000 people aged 65 and over may have suffered the death of a partner since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, one and a half times as many as in the same period in each of the five previous years. That’s according to new analysis by the national older people’s charity, Independent Age, which is calling on the government to provide more support for bereaved people during and beyond the coronavirus crisis, following the appointment of Nadine Dorries as Minister for Bereavement.
The charity estimates that, of these 77,000, at least 5,400 people will go on to develop complicated grief: a prolonged period of acute grief which occurs when the ‘normal’ grieving process is interrupted. Developing complicated grief is more likely when someone is unable to grieve on their own terms, for example, by being isolated from family and friends, being unable to say goodbye face to face or hold a funeral, and not being able to access face to face professional support. Sadly, these barriers will be faced by the majority of those losing a loved one during lockdown.
Grief can affect both physical and mental health, with an increased risk for people as they age, including a greater likelihood of developing depression or having a weakened immune system. These problems can often be avoided, or the affects reduced, with early intervention.
John Kavanagh, 80, from the South West, who is supported by Independent Age, lost his wife, Liz, suddenly from a lung infection and pneumonia several weeks ago. He says, “Because of coronavirus only five people were allowed to attend the funeral and members of Liz’s family weren’t allowed to make the journey. This made Liz’s death a lot tougher for me. Everyone should have been there to support me and say goodbye to her. There was no wake to celebrate her life.
“Liz’s family live quite far away so even now I am on my own. I feel that isolation. Without coronavirus I would have had support and I don’t have it. It’s made everything so much harder.”
Deborah Alsina MBE, Chief Executive of Independent Age, commented, “The death of a partner can be devastating at any time of life. But the added challenges presented by the coronavirus lockdown have the potential to cause real and lasting damage to the emotional wellbeing, mental health and resilience of people in later life.
“We know that bereavement in later life can result in loneliness and an increased likelihood of depression, and there is a greater risk of this when people aren’t able to follow familiar rituals and processes to help them grieve. That’s why it’s so important the Government ensures there is adequate support for both the people who have been bereaved and the organisations that work with them.”
Independent Age’s recommendations to the new Minister for Bereavement include:
- The government must undertake a review of bereavement needs across the country to fully understand the scale of support that is now needed due to both COVID-19 and the lockdown measures.
- The government must support the bereavement sector to cope with this increased need, including urgent financial support for providers to maintain vital services and extend their reach to all of those in need of help.
- Given the increased scale of bereavement, the government must ensure professionals in health and care settings have bereavement awareness training to ensure they are comfortable and equipped to offer or signpost support.
- The Government must ensure care providers can access adequate PPE supplies so that they can facilitate visits from family and friends to someone who is dying.
Independent Age is also working with Grief Chat to provide emotional support for bereaved people, access to trained bereavement counsellors and referral into other specialist bereavement services. Further information is available at independentage.org/information/personal-life/grief-chat