STATE COLLEGE, PA. The day began like so many others. D. Carl Johnson, ailing with diabetes, had trouble standing in the shower, so his wife, Janice, washed his hair in the sink. Carl combed his hair and came downstairs for breakfast.
Afterward, he stepped out onto the patio to read and collapsed, a blood clot lodged in his brain. It was June 20, 1998.
"He was really brain dead then. They brought him back, and he held on and survived until the 25th," his 71-year-old widow recalls. "I remember thinking I didn't want him to go on my son's birthday, the 21st, and I didn't want him to go on my birthday, the 24th of June. He went the evening of the 25th."
Faced with life without her partner of 46 years, alone in the house her husband helped to design and build 31 years earlier, Janice Johnson did what many her age do: She turned to her church and also found comfort in a new circle of friends.
The Johnsons were active in their church before Carl's death, but Mrs. Johnson became even more involved, volunteering with two youth groups, helping with funerals, taking her husband's spot on the building committee.
"I became like a robot," she says. "I did anything they wanted me to do. I'm involved with the kids at church, and now I'm a deacon. That's my life, really."
The couple had lived a comfortable life. They traveled extensively after Carl retired from his job as an architect for Penn State University, taking cruises to Alaska, Bermuda (twice), Hawaii and the Panama Canal, and a bus tour through the Grand Canyon.
After Carl's death, his widow may have been alone, but she was never lonely.
"I pretty much did for myself," she says. "I had things to do: I had to cut the grass; thank goodness it was the summer because my neighbor next door, Nancy, would always stop over or say 'Hi.' Wintertime you might not see your neighbors for weeks. And I had several friends who were widows, and we did things."
Mrs. Johnson's experience is typical of many senior citizens, who fall back on their relationships with friends and their church and who often are better than younger adults at dealing with grief, said Kerrie Laguna, who specializes in developmental psychology and senior citizens as an assistant professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College.
"Older adults are less anxious about a lot of things, including death," Laguna said. "I think that older adults cope better than young and middle-aged adults do with a variety of stressers. Call it wisdom, acceptance, experience they just seem to do better with stress."
But the death of someone close can be a devastating experience, and isolation can set in if a survivor is left alone with few relatives or friends to rely on. Nancy Brink, director of community and family services at Koch Funeral Home, said that danger gets worse with the physical limitations of age.
"You can almost categorically link it to age ranges," she said. "People in their 80s don't often come to support groups. Losing a spouse in the 80s, if they don't have family around them, they really can be debilitated."
Active is healthy
Carl Fidora, 71, chose to stay active as the director of the Bellefonte Senior Center when his 46-year-old daughter, Wanda, died from a heart attack last spring. Although he had lost both parents and two brothers, Fidora said losing a child was much more difficult.
"My wife, she's still grieving. And so am I, but in different ways, I guess," he said. "They were more closely united, I suppose. Any conversation, just about, it comes up about her daughter.
"They saw each other about every day, went places, shopping and things like that, at least once a week," he said. "Myself, I didn't have that close of a relationship, but there are still times when something will remind me of her. Something jars your memory, and it brings it all back."
Some seniors draw strength from grief support groups like the one organized by Brink. The group are scheduled weekly, some meet each month.
"There's really a lot of people out there who've got guts, who got a real verve," Brink said. "If you get people out, get them laughing, participating in their lives, they are much more likely to continue to lead an active and fulfilling life."