Valerie Bourgeois-Guérin is a clinical psychologist and professor at the Psychology Department of University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM). Her profound interest for grief and end-of-life issues motivated her to complete a Masters in Social Intervention with a Specialization in Death Studies, followed by a Doctorate in Psychology, both at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM). She has been involved for close to 15 years in diverse qualitative research projects about seniors’ experiences related to exclusion, mental health, end-of-life and grief. She is a researcher-member of the Quebec Network for Research on Aging (RQRV), the Centre for Research and Expertise in Social Gerontology (CREGES), the Research Chair on Aging and Diversity (Chaire de recherche sur le vieillissement et la diversité citoyenne) and the Aging, Social Exclusions and Solidarities (Vieillissement, Exclusions Sociales et Solidarités – VIES) team. She has written several articles and presented numerous conferences on topics related to grief, suffering, end-of-life, communication, as well as the body and temporality as they are experienced by seniors. Her clinical work in private practice with seniors who are bereaved and at the end-of-life stage enhances her reflections on those fundamental issues.
The Emperor’s New Clothes – But he Isn’t Wearing Anything At All!
Seniors’ residences: adapted environment or place of social exclusion for bereaved seniors?
As they age, many seniors leave their homes to live in a seniors’ residence. The experience of moving into such a residence is often accompanied by an accumulation of losses (Wiersma, 2012). Seniors can move into residence precisely because they are experiencing physical or cognitive losses, or because they are grieving their spouse and life at home is no longer possible or safe (Oswald and Rowles, 2007; Strohschein, 2011). Therefore, many seniors who move into residence are grieving. Since those residences are both living environments and environments where death happens from time to time, seniors who live there will be confronted to the loss of other residents, often accompanied by the awareness that this residence may be their last home before death (Wiersma, 2012).
Given this state of affairs, we wondered how seniors experience grief in residence. Up to now, research on this topic has been close to non-existent. As part of a qualitative research project titled “The experience of bereavement of older adults living in seniors’ residences”, we undertook to give the floor to seniors who face this situation, in order to better understand their experiences. We visited seniors’ residences and met with 26 individuals over the age of 65 who had experienced the loss of another resident while living in this environment. We conducted semi-directive interviews with 25 women and 1 man living 12 different seniors’ residences in Montreal, Canada. Following these interviews, we conducted a thematic analysis of the data (Paillé and Mucchielli, 2012).
Our results show that although death and grief are realities present in all residences, they are not given the same space and consideration everywhere. In fact, in some residences, a sense of discomfort seems to hang over those realities, relegating the experiences of the bereaved to the realm of the unspoken. This silence, while appreciated by some, causes suffering to others. We will discuss the ways in which our participants felt their grief was considered by others in the residence. We will reflect on the role that perceptions of old age and death might play in this process and examine the possibility that the silence surrounding death may lead to subtle forms of social exclusion for bereaved seniors.