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Hidden suffering: Tackling grief in seniors’ living communities

In every senior’s living community, a high proportion of residents will be experiencing grief in one form or another. How can operators help residents at this challenging stage of life?

It’s an uncomfortable reality that for many residents in senior living communities, grief is a part of life.

Whether it be the loss of a partner, moving out of the family home, or the realisation they are in the final stages of their life, complex emotions will often accompany the move into a seniors’ community. Living with an older cohort also comes with challenges – residents die, which will always have ripple effect in a community.

For providers, acknowledging this truth and helping residents manage their feelings can be a way to help them live more meaningful, purposeful, and, ultimately, more joyous lives – and healthier, happier residents are good for business.


Grief is the feeling we experience when we lose something significant, says former grief counsellor Peter Wilson, who is a resident of Brisbane’s Samford Grove retirement village.

“It might be the loss of a dream, the loss of a career, the loss of a house, the loss of a community, and, of course, a death,” Peter said.


Moving into a senior’s living community can cause grief, said Peter.

“I don’t think people really understand the grief you go through when you must sell up, leave your family home, come to somewhere you don’t know, and give away all those family connections. It’s a huge loss,” said Peter, who moved to Samford Grove two years ago.

Though he is content today, the move to a retirement community triggered feelings of loss for Peter, and he could see others around him were experiencing similar emotions.

“You’ve got to start all over again making new friends – it’s really, really tough.”

Peter, who retired five years ago and is 76, said older people are also often “disenfranchised”. “Older people aren’t respected like they used to be,” he said.

As they approach the end of their lives, older people also often look back and begin to wonder about the meaning of their life.

“So, there are a lot of issues that can cause real despair,” he said.

A committed Christian, Peter spent decades working as a counsellor of various types, including roles as a nurse, grief counsellor, in the funeral industry, a crisis support worker, and eventually retraining and working as a psychologist and psychotherapist.

Having purpose and dignity are what help older people cope, Peter said.

Are providers doing enough to support residents coping with these challenging emotions and experiences?


Five Good Friends is a Queensland-based home care provider that offers concierge services bringing activities, conversations, and education into seniors’ communities.

When Give Good Friends visited Samford Grove, and began talking to Peter, together they saw an opportunity to assist residents with discussion groups around life-changing experiences.

Peter said, “I started out in 1971, and I’ve got a PhD and academic work behind me, and I’m sitting here twiddling my thumbs. I thought, well, this is crazy. It’s almost selfish because I’ve got this experience and this training and there are others out there who could benefit.

“Instead of sitting here twiddling my thumbs, doing nothing, I’d like to do something that’s of value.”

Initially the groups will be held at Samford Grove, but Peter hopes the sessions “plant a seed” and he could extend the sessions to other communities where Five Good Friends are helping.

The first discussion groups will be based on the topics of making new friends – what hinders us from reaching out to people, overcoming shyness, and so on – managing loss in life, how to start a new chapter in a new setting.


Simon Lockyer, co-founder and CEO of Five Good Friends, said moving into a seniors’ community is a major life change and can cause residents to experience a complex range of emotions – both negative and positive.

“The resident might have planned on the move, but they might also have had to move from living in the family home, they might have lost a partner, or they are moving into a community where they don’t know anyone, and for some residents the move is a signal that this is the last chapter,” said Simon.

“It’s a complete change of life,” he said.

Often when they are out talking to residents, Simon said they tell them that after their first two or three nights in the community, new residents will wake in the morning thinking, ‘What have I done?’

“But six months down the track, they’re like, ‘I wish I made this decision earlier’,” Simon said.

Acknowledging those feelings of loss and grief, and learning some strategies to cope with them, could help to make that transition easier for new residents.


Peter has one piece of advice for residents who might be suffering.

“Reach out for help. Most people don’t need professional help.

“I put it to you that 80% of people’s issues can be dealt with by a sensitive good friend – a family member or a friend – and tell your story.”

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