The loss of a lifelong partner

When a woman loses her lifelong partner, it can affect her health in many ways. By Kirsten Braun.

senior woman sitting alone on a park bench

The loss of a lifelong partner brings about many changes for a woman. It might bring a shift in roles, responsibilities and also relationships. For many women, the changes that occur with the loss of a lifelong partner can in turn impact on their physical and mental health. Areas that are most likely to be affected include:

Nutrition

If a woman has been responsible for the majority of the cooking, the loss of their partner can have a huge impact. Many women gain a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment from cooking for others. Eating is not just about fulfilling a nutritional requirement but also a social activity that brings people together. Without someone to cook for and eat with, some women find they no longer enjoy preparing food. Eating a meal by themselves can exacerbate their feelings of loneliness.

Cooking for one can also seem like a lot of effort. If women no longer have access to a car, what they buy from a grocery store at any one time may be limited. If trips to the shops are infrequent, they may miss out on having regular access to fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products. Buying food for one can also be more expensive and often perishable foods like meat are sold in bulk.

All of these factors can lead to women not cooking proper meals but instead just eating small snacks or relying on processed foods. Not eating a balanced diet can result in women suffering from malnutrition and/or significant weight loss. Other women may put on weight if they are eating too many processed foods.

What women can do

If women find they have lost their enthusiasm for regular cooking or are finding it difficult to cook for one, they can try cooking meals that are suitable for freezing and freeze a second or third portion for another occasion. Local clubs are another option as they often provide reasonably priced meals. Visiting a club also provides an opportunity for women to socialise with others, even if it is just a friendly hello or two. For women who have family nearby, organising a regular meal together can be a way of staying in touch with family and also having a nutritious meal.  For those women who no longer have access to a car to do their grocery shopping, they can investigate if their local supermarket provides a home delivery service.

Women who are experiencing difficultly shopping for food or cooking for themselves might be eligible for Meals on Wheels, http://www.qmow.org/. As well as providing nutritious home-delivered, low cost meals, Meals on Wheels also provide a friendly check-in to ensure all is well. There are other home-delivery meal services such as Lite n’ Easy, though they don’t offer the same social interaction as Meals on Wheels.

Financial

In some relationships, women might have been responsible for day-to-day household expenses but their partner took care of bank accounts, superannuation and/or investments. Trying to understand and handle all these new financial affairs can be very overwhelming. For those on the pension, losing a partner will mean a change to payment amounts. Adjusting to this new income amount when many living expenses will remain the same can be stressful and worrying. Conversely, a woman may receive payments from a life insurance policy but be unsure of the best way to invest or spend the money.

What women can do

For women not previously involved in many financial matters it may be beneficial to contact a professional in this area such as an accountant and/or financial advisor. Seniors may be eligible for free financial counselling from selected government organisations or charities. For those who feel too overwhelmed by their financial decisions they might wish to nominate a family member or trusted friend as their power of attorney. 

Family and friend’s relationships

If two people have been together for a long time many of their friendships were formed as a couple. When their partnership is broken it often affects these friendships as well. Some friends may not know what to say and so will remain distant. Women may find it was actually their partner that was more connected to a friend and that they do not have a lot in common. In addition, if couples did particular activities with other couples (e.g., played doubles tennis) these activities might no longer be feasible.

The loss of a partner may also result in changes in family relationships. For some women, interactions with family might become less frequent if it was their partner that initiated family gatherings. Conversely, women who are very independent may find their family is more present in their life as they are concerned for their welfare. While this might be a welcome change for some women, other women may find it stifling.

What women can do

For friends who have become distant initiating a catch-up might be all that is necessary to reconnect. While this can be difficult, being the one to take the first step often puts the friend at ease if they were not sure of the right thing to say or do. For women who spent a lot of time with their partner, or who find they don’t have as much in common now with their current friends, making new friendships can be helpful. Joining an informal group around an existing interest, such as a book club, can be a good way to meet like-minded people. The local library or community centre is a good place to check for meeting times of different groups.

Loss of purpose

In the same way that a woman might have found a sense of purpose in providing food for her family (see Nutrition section), women may find other roles have changed as well. For example, a woman who was the carer of her partner for a length of time before they died may feel lost now that this role is no longer required. They may have given up other activities such as hobbies or sport in order to provide the care and so there is little left to occupy their time.

What women can do

While the loss of a lifelong partner can be devastating for women it can also be a time when women can re-evaluate their lives and what they want to do in the future. For some women no longer having to accommodate the needs of another person can lead to new experiences. Perhaps they have always wanted to travel to a particular destination or learn a particular skill. Some women may also find volunteering might give them a new sense of purpose. Volunteering opportunities can be found by visiting Volunteering Queensland at www.volunteeringqld.org.au or contacting local charities.

Loss of intimacy

When a woman loses a lifelong partner they also lose a shared history; someone who is familiar with their likes and dislikes. This emotional intimacy is difficult to replace and its loss can exacerbate women’s sense of loneliness. In addition, the role of physical intimacy in people’s wellbeing is well recognised. The loss of a partner’s touch can leave women feeling unloved.

What women can do

For those who don’t already have one, a small pet can provide a great sense of companionship. Taking a dog for a walk, for example, can provide opportunities to interact with others in the community, therefore, reducing isolation. Patting or grooming a pet also involves the benefits of touch. Women who wish to date again may benefit from registering with an online dating site. Most sites allow searches for prospective dates by age so women can find someone suitable.

Sleep

The loss of a lifelong partner can cause sleep difficulties for women. If they shared a bed with their partner, sleeping in the same bed can be a constant reminder of their loss. Women may find it difficult to get off to sleep or wake up in the night or early morning. If a woman is now living alone she may not feel as safe and this can lead to disturbed sleep patterns. Women who have lost their sense of purpose and/or are suffering from depression may sleep longer than normal during the day, which can affect their night-time sleeping. 

What women can do

Some women may find downsizing their original bed helpful or choosing another bedroom in the house to be their bedroom. For those concerned about safety, installing additional security measures such as security screens and/or alarms may bring peace of mind. If women are suffering from depression they may find it useful to contact their GP about treatment options. In general, women can improve sleep patterns by: avoiding alcohol, exercise, caffeine or heavy dinners close to bedtime; avoiding long daytime naps; sleeping in a dark, cool room (18°C); exercising during the day; and setting a regular sleep schedule of going to bed and waking up.

Last updated: September 2016.

©Women's Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Kirsten Braun and reviewed by the Women's Health Queensland Wide editorial committee. It was published in Health Journey 2016 Issue 3.

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