Men May Need Support to Grieve After Losing Spouse to Alzheimer's

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • My father “officially” became a widower in late September 2007 when my mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, died. Honestly, he probably was a widower many years before.  Dad had watched Mom’s memory start slipping in 2002, but we didn’t get a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s until three years later. During that time period, my mild-mannered father watched his close relationship with his wife unravel after getting into rip-roaring arguments with Mom and eventually hearing the “D” word (divorce) thrown out on occasion.

    Mom continued to slip cognitively and Dad didn’t know what to do to help her or himself, so he basically avoided her. They retreated to separate ends of the house, only meeting occasionally in the kitchen for meals. Finally, Mom ended up calling me in tears and I took action by encouraging her to move in with me for a while. I then saw what Dad had experienced and requested a geriatric psychiatric evaluation for Mom. At this point, we finally heard the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Soon thereafter,  Mom was placed in a nursing home. Dad drove back up to West Texas to put their house up for sale and to sell the furniture and other items that had accumulated after five decades of marriage.

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    A year later, Dad moved into a duplex about a half-a-mile from where I lived. The next year was hard on him. He had to live as a bachelor, something he hadn’t done in so, so long. And he had to redevelop a relationship with his wife, who was sliding further into Alzheimer’s disease, plus he had to reestablish a relationship with my brother and me, because we didn’t think that he handled Mom’s situation well prior to her diagnosis.  It was during that time when Dad finally “heard” me when I coached him on how to interact with Mom in her current cognitive state. He learned how to communicate effectively with her. In addition, Dad and I got past the previous frustrations and other emotions related to his caregiving.

    And it was probably that period of reapproachment that ultimately saved Dad’s life once Mom died in September 2007. Research has found that men don’t always cope with the loss of a partner. Using data from married people who had been born between 1910 and 1930 (which would have been my father’s generation), a 2012 study found that men were 33 percent more likely to die after becoming recently widowed than women. 

    Dad and I started having dinner together a couple nights a week and he finally moved in with me in 2010, although he voiced that he didn’t want to be a burden. Our pattern mirrors what many researchers have found. In a guest column on the National Widowers’ Organization (NWO) website, Dr.  Phyllis Silverman stated, “It is more acceptable among younger men to cry, to give voice to a sadness and emptiness in their lives when their wives pass away. Many men still insist on appearing strong, able to manage on their own. They turn to women in their lives to provide care, sympathy, and support. They are often reluctant to join a support group because they do not want to appear ‘needy.’”

  • That begs the question – what if you have a father or brother who is dealing with the loss of a spouse or partner due to Alzheimer’s? What kind of support is available? Obviously, many communities have support groups through churches and the Alzheimer’s Association to help people with this transition.

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    NWO, which serves as a clearinghouse for men who have lost a spouse or partner, also serves as another resource. “Our sole goal is to bring men together, arm them with as much information about who to get through a debilitating time in their lives, no matter how long it takes,” the organization’s website states.

    The NWO was created by Sam Feldman, who lost his wife to cancer after 53 years of marriage. He didn’t feel comfortable sharing his feelings in bereavement groups that included women, so he started a men’s only group.  The organization is designed as a virtual toolkit to assist men who are coping with the death of a loved one. The goal is to provide a place where men can meet others who are dealing with the same life change.

    If you know a man who has lost a wife or partner to Alzheimer’s, I’d encourage you to check out the resources that are available on this website and to find a support group in his local community. It isn’t easy, but living a full life actually is possible after the loss of a loved one who had Alzheimer’s disease.

    Primary Resources for This Sharepost:

    Furness, H. (2012). Men more likely to die after losing their wife, but women carry on as normal.  The Telegraph.

    National Widowers’ Website. (ND). Website.

    Silverman, P. (ND). Is there really a gender difference in the grieving process? National Widowers’ Organization.

Published On: May 29, 2014