One of the most rewarding aspects of working in aged care is the strong bonds of friendship that carers develop with residents over many years.

But these connections can come at a price – when the resident dies, the carer can experience feelings of profound loss and sadness.

While aged care workers are experienced with dealing with the physical and social aspects of aged care, and with helping families during times of loss, they can sometimes overlook their own grieving when a resident dies.

We don’t often consider the emotional toll that grief and loss takes on aged care workers.

The numbers show the magnitude of the issue.

In 2010-11, 116,481 people died in Australia, almost half – 43 per cent or more than 50,000 people – spent their final days in residential aged care. Residents stay on average three years in permanent residential care.

A survey by palliative care provider Karuna found that nearly 70 per cent of nurses felt that grief and loss at work was an issue for them.

Experiencing grief as an aged care worker

Of course, aged care workers experience grief like the rest of us. They experience their own grief when residents they have come to know and care for die, and they are also exposed to the grief that friends and families experience when their loved one dies.

Beyondblue, the Australian organisation that promotes an awareness of depression in society, says care workers should be supported through periods of grief.

Management can help staff by providing a supportive work environment and offering training to help with coping with these difficult issues. Sometimes debriefing or counselling is offered, or confidential support services provided by a third party.

Practice self care

To help carers cope with their grieving when a resident dies, Beyondblue recommends self-care methods such as:

  • talking to friends and family about their feelings,
  • keep taking part in enjoyable activities,
  • looking after their physical health, and
  • keeping a positive approach.

Ceremonies can help with mourning and provide a sense of closure

Some nursing homes have developed ceremonies that mark the death of a resident out of respect for the person who has died and their families, but also to allow staff an opportunity to mourn.

In our research for this story we came across the following ceremonies that various aged care providers perform when a resident passes away.

  • Staff, funeral home workers, and family members escort the body to the hearse. Music is played, and a ceremonial quilt is placed over the body.
  • A remembrance table is set up so staff and other residents can place items on it to remember the person by and be a place to gather and pay tribute to the person.
  • Staff have a monthly meeting to remember residents who have died, and to reflect on the death to see if improvements could be made to the process.
  • Once the resident leaves the facility, staff enter the room, say a prayer, light a candle, and acknowledge that the person has died there.

However, many facilities don’t provide any sort of ceremony at all when a resident passes away.

When should you be concerned?

At what point does normal grief become a problem for aged care workers?

If an aged care worker is experiencing the following, it could be a sign that they may need professional help to cope with their feelings:

  • An inability to concentrate,
  • Unusual number of absences from work,
  • Lack of energy,
  • Feelings of an inability to cope,
  • Anger, and
  • Fatigue.

Where to find professional help

Courses are available to help aged care workers deal with the feelings of grief and loss.

Beyondblue and CareSearch have developed a brochure specifically to help aged care workers who are struggling with feelings of grief and bereavement.

Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement

1800 642 066

info@grief.org.au

Beyond Blue

1300 22 4636

We’d love to find out about about any other types of ceremonies you know of that aged care providers perform when a resident dies? Get in touch and let us know.

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