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Press release: Peer support imperative for older adults who have lost their spouse

Many older adults have to deal with the loss of their life partner in the last phase of their life. Scientific studies estimate that twenty-five percent of these older adults experience difficulties in coping with the loss. This in turn can lead to loneliness, depression or even decline in the physical health. To find out what can help older adults coping with their loss, the partners in the European project LEAVES conducted a qualitative study in three countries: the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Portugal. Older adults who had lost their spouse were interviewed in these three countries about their strategies in seeking for support after the loss of their partner. The most important conclusion? Mourners show a need for contact with peers, others who are in a similar situation.

In total, thirty widows and widowers were interviewed in the three participating countries. Many of the grieving older adults indicated that, after the death of their partner, they did not find the support in their social network they had hoped for or even counted on. Our respondents noticed that the contact with their close network felt different than before. And for this reason, they often look for new contacts for support outside of their existing network. Those who are in similar situation turned out to be the most valuable contacts.

One participant (81 years old, married for 56 years) indicated that he regretted that people from his social network no longer asked how he felt after the loss of his wife. ‘As if they did not dare to do so. Others think that it should be over after a while, whereas for me, the process had just began.

Another participant (74 years, married for 24 years) explained that she found it awful to suddenly be alone, as she was used to doing everything together. ‘I had no place to tell my story. The contact with other widows became very important to me. It's nice to talk to someone who knows what it feels like. Others don't understand it until they have experienced it them selves'.

The social network often seems afraid of the response of the person in mourning. How should you react when someone suddenly starts crying? Sometimes it is easier to avoid the subject or even the grieving person than not knowing what to say or do. Our research makes clear that 'strange' fellow mourners are better able to understand the feelings involved. One generally feels safer to talk about the loss with people who have also lost their partner' - According to Marije Blok, Manager Innovation at the National Foundation for the Elderly, the partner responsible for conducting the interviews in the Netherlands.

This research was carried out within the framework of LEAVES, a project subsidized within the European Active and Assisted Living (AAL) program. Within this project, European researchers, companies and technology developers are working together to develop an online support tool for mourning. This online service offers grieving older people the opportunity to share their story and a program that supports them in going through mourning. The results of this current study will help shaping this service. Especially in this corona period it is no longer self-evident to meet and support each other – especially for older people. Digital opportunities offer all kinds of new possibilities. The LEAVES project aims to respond to this in an easily accessible way.


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