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. Despite this, they are less likely to be referred for bereavement support than bereaved people who are younger. That’s according to a new report launched today by Independent Age, the older people’s charity, which examines the impact of the death of a partner on older people, and the importance of talking about the bereavement and receiving support.


Every year in England, 192,000 older people are newly bereaved. Of this number, over 106,000 will experience the onset of depression, projected to increase to over 161,000 by 2039. There is evidence that older people benefit more than working age adults from psychological therapies, but they are less likely to be referred for bereavement support. In fact, fewer than 1 in 5 people aged 65 and over have received bereavement counselling.


The report found that many older people and their families see the death of a partner as “just how life goes”, rather than a traumatic event for which the surviving partner will need support to cope. This means that many older people can 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 may feel less deserving of it. There is also a heavy 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.”


Independent Age is calling for 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. The charity wants every older person who experiences partner loss to be aware of the support options available to them and to be able to access the type of support with which they feel most comfortable.


Janet Morrison, Chief Executive of Independent Age, says, “The death of a partner in older age can be a devastating life event, with emotional, financial and practical impacts for the bereaved person. Bereavement in older age can lead to loneliness and an increased likelihood of depression, and it is appalling that older bereaved people aren’t being offered the support and access to services that could make a huge difference to their wellbeing. 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.”


Other findings from the report, titled Good grief: Older people’s experiences of partner bereavement, include:

  • Older people who felt their partner didn’t have a “good death” find it more difficult to cope with their grief
  • Some of the physical effects of grief, for example, having a weakened immune system, only affect people aged 65 and over, putting older people at greater risk of ill health, or even death, in the months following a bereavement
  • An older person whose partner has died is more likely to die in the three months following their partner’s death than someone who hasn’t been bereaved
  • People with complicated grief are twice as likely to die by suicide compared to bereaved people without complicated grief, and complicated grief is twice as common for older people than for bereaved working age adults
  • Women’s household incomes typically fall after the death of their partner, while men tend to see their incomes increase


According to the report, 7 out of 10 people (of all ages) say they are comfortable talking about death, but less than 1 in 4 actually do it. The charity wants more work to be done to remove the stigma from talking about death and bereavement.


The report is being launched ahead of a new campaign by Independent Age that will encourage people to talk about death and bereavement. Independent Age has information and advice available for people on end of life planning, having difficult conversations, and coping with bereavement.

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