According to my wife, it is possible to die of a broken heart. No, she’s not a doctor. As her source, she’ll cite a Hollywood movie, “The Notebook,” a 1996 tear-jerker about a young couple, Allie and Noah, who fall in love in the 1940s. Their story is narrated from the present day by an elderly man, portrayed by James Garner, telling the tale to a fellow nursing home resident, played by Gena Rowlands.
At the onset of her dementia, Allie wrote their love story in the notebook with instructions for Noah to “read this to me, and I’ll come back to you.” In the nursing home, Noah gets permission to read the story to Allie. Allie suddenly remembers her past before she and Noah joyfully spend a brief intimate moment together.
Allie asks Noah what will happen to them when she loses her memory completely, and he reassures her that he will never leave her. She asks him if he thinks their love for each other is strong enough and he replies their love can do anything. After each tells the other that they love them, they both go to sleep in Allie’s bed. The next morning a nurse finds that they have died peacefully in bed together. The last scene shows a flock of birds flying away.
“It’s based on a true story,” says my wife. After some research, it turns out she’s right. In Minnesota, after 65 years of marriage, a couple died just hours apart (Source: Fox News, Jan. 5, 2013). Clifford and Eva Vevea spent their last few days together holding hands at their care home at Valley Eldercare Center. The Crookston couple passed away of natural causes within hours of each other.
Nurses at the care center pushed their beds together so they could be together. A nurse asked Eva Vevea if she would like to hold her husband’s hand one more time after he died — and within hours she passed away. Their son, Kip Vevea, says they were ready to die together.
In 2014, an Ohio couple died just 15 hours apart (Source: The Associated Press, April 20, 2014). Helen Felumlee, of Nashport, Ohio, died at 92 on April 12. Her husband, 91-year-old Kenneth Felumlee, died the next morning.
The couple’s eight children say the two had been inseparable since meeting as teenagers.
“They remained deeply in love until the very end, even eating breakfast together while holding hands,” said their daughter, Linda Cody. Although both experienced declining health in recent years, Cody said, each tried to stay strong for the other. “That’s what kept them going,” she said. “He was ready. He just didn’t want to leave her here by herself.”
In London, Marcus Ringrose, the grieving husband of actress Mary Tamm, died just hours after giving the eulogy at his wife’s funeral. Miss Tamm had died from cancer two weeks previously. A post-mortem provided no evidence that the “fit and well” 59-year-old had suffered a heart attack (Source: U.K. News, Aug. 9, 2012).
The Westminster Coroner’s Court heard the widower could have fallen victim to a rare condition in which the heart simply stops beating for no reason. An inquest determined that Mr. Ringrose died of sudden adult death syndrome (SADS), a cardiac condition that can be triggered by emotional stress. SADS is caused by a “ventricular arrhythmia” — a massive disturbance in the heart’s rhythm. It claims around 500 victims in Britain each year and can strike at any age.
Did you know that Harvard University conducted a study on what many call the “Widower’s Effect”? Widows and widowers were more likely to die than people whose spouses were still living, on average. It is a phenomenon that has long been suspected — and now scientists say it really is possible to die of a broken heart.
The researchers found that widows and widowers had an increased chance of death when compared to people who still had their partners. The study found that losing a spouse could increase one’s risk of dying by as much as 66 percent within three months after the partner passed away (Reuters Health, Nov. 14, 2013).
Dr. Ken Doka, who is a gerontologist at the College of New Rochelle in New York and a senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, told Reuters, “Maybe they used to go for a walk every night but now they’re not doing that anymore. Maybe they’re not sleeping well, or maybe not taking their medications. Also, grief is extraordinarily stressful and when you’re older and frailer it’s harder to cope with stress.”
“It’s possible it’s a grief-related mechanism or that providing care for the sick spouse causes illness in the surviving spouse,” said lead researcher Dr. S. V. Subramanian. “Or, as one’s spouse gets sicker, the surviving spouse stops taking care of their own health.” The effect was strongest during the first three months after a spouse’s death, when they had a 66 percent increased chance of dying.
They added that they still aren’t clear on what causes the widowhood effect. Some experts say the change on lifestyle may be to blame.
Dr. Doka said that widowers may feel especially lonely because they don’t know they need to be proactive about finding company. “One of the problems widowers often have is the lack of support and one of the reasons is that very often the wife, historically, is the keeper of the kids. She’s the one that called the kids up and said they should come over for dinner, so it’s not unusual that widowers will often say no one ever stops over any more, because they didn’t realize someone else was calling and inviting them.”
Doka advises family and friends to keep an eye on the surviving spouse to see how the person is handling those changes. “Be supportive and attentive,” said Doka, “What insulates people from grief and stress is a good sense of support. Be around for this person.” He added, “Spirituality and religion may also help some people get through a crisis.”
The American Association of Retired People (AARP) website has an article entitled “Never Too Old to Find New Friends” by Mary Mohler (April 1, 2011). She writes, “Close relationships with others are vital to your health — physical, mental and emotional — your self-esteem and even your longevity, according to recent research.”
So if watching “Grey’s Anatomy” is the highlight of your week, or you find yourself enthusiastically chatting with telemarketers, you probably need to make some new connections. Here are 15 things that can help you.
1. Get over the idea that everybody else your age already has all the friends they need. “Nobody wears a sign that says ‘I’m looking for a friend,’ but there are a lot of people out there in the same boat,” Paul says.
2. Accept invitations, even if you suspect it won’t be the night of your life. Just getting out increases the chances of meeting new people — and friends are sometimes found in unlikely places.
3. Check out continuing-education classes at your local college or university. In addition, many colleges allow older adults to audit regular classes for free, and some have programs specifically for seniors.
4. Senior centers have moved way beyond Friday-night bingo. Most have a variety of classes, activities and even trips. Stop by and ask for a schedule.
5. If you’re retired, take a part-time job, even for just a few hours a week. It will expose you to new people and give you a little extra pocket money to boot.
6. Pursue your own interests — concerts, lectures, tai chi, cooking classes, whatever. “Look for things you’re passionate about and attend consistently so that you have time to build relationships naturally,” Paul says.
7. Set up a page on Facebook. You can connect with old friends and friends of friends — who just may happen to know someone in your area. Worst case: you’ll find a few online soul mates.
8. Invite a few of your neighbors for dinner if you like to cook, or organize a potluck meal if you don’t.
9. Get a dog if you’re an animal lover. Conversations with other dog walkers are guaranteed, and even people without pets will stop to say hello to Max, giving you the perfect opener. Can’t have a pet? Volunteer at your local shelter.
10. Work out at a nearby gym or the Y — but don’t just do the machine routine: Join a class so you see the same people every week.
11. “Don’t put too much pressure on a fragile new friendship because that can scare people away,” Paul says. If someone doesn’t call you back immediately, don’t assume they simply don’t like you. Try again.
12. Have faith — and exercise it. Many churches and synagogues make it a point to welcome newbies and introduce them around.
13. Volunteer in your community. Museums, hospitals, churches, animal shelters and schools are always looking for people to help out. Find opportunities in your area at AARP’s createthegood.org or VolunteersofAmerica.org.
14. Log on to Meetup.com and enter your zip code. You’ll find dozens, even hundreds, of groups in your area, focusing on everything from animals to Zen meditation. Also check out the AARP online community. If you can’t find the right group, you can start your own.
15. Be willing to take a risk. When you meet someone you like — a salesperson or someone seated next to you at a lunch counter — take the initiative and ask for an email address. What’s the worst that can happen?
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.