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Treating Anxiety in Older Adults

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Treating Anxiety in Older Adults
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Treating Anxiety in Older Adults

October 05, 2020

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. But while feelings of anxiety are common in all people, anxiety in the elderly can go untreated. For older adults, recognizing or acknowledging their symptoms of anxiety may be difficult to do. That can make it difficult for doctors to diagnose the condition, too. Older adults tend to report their physical ailments during doctor visits, leaving out their symptoms of anxiety.

anxious elderly man

Causes of Anxiety in the Elderly

Older people suffer from anxiety for a variety of reasons. This population often suffer from chronic health issues, take medicines that can make anxiety worse, or find themselves facing other challenging situations including: 
  • Loss of independence: Aging seniors gradually begin to lose their independence. Physical changes in hearing and seeing can mean the end to driving or living independently, causing them to feel anxious because they’ve lost their autonomy. 
  • Role reversal: Seniors can often find themselves needing, rather than providing, help from family. When older people must suddenly depend on others for transportation, help managing household bills or assistance with the other tasks of daily living, they may feel frustrated and anxious.  
  • Cognitive decline: Elderly people diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s often experience feelings of confusion or frustration. Seniors who recognize that their memories work less dependably may become frustrated because they forget things too easily. Some may panic when faced with disruptions to their usual schedules.
  • Fear of being alone: Social isolation or the gradual loss of friends who’ve passed away can cause worry and anxiety. Seniors who’ve lost their spouses – or who don’t have a strong support system – also worry about being alone.
  • Specific phobias: Sometimes specific fears of death, medical or dental procedures or worry about disaster befalling family can cause anxiety in the elderly. 
  • Decline in physical well-being: When people age, they often find themselves beset with various physical ailments. Those ailments often cause anxiety in older adults. Dealing with chronic pain, for example, can decrease the pleasure older people take in hobbies and interfere with their abilities to socialize or complete daily tasks. A decline in physical wellness can cause anxiety about the inability to live independently.
  • Financial insecurity: The financial insecurity of living on a fixed income, dealing with rising healthcare costs and worrying about investments and savings can cause stress and anxiety.

Symptoms of Anxiety in Older Adults

Anxiety presents itself in different ways depending on the person. And some people become quite good at hiding anxious feelings they’re experiencing. But the symptoms of anxiety often don’t resolve without help – and the elderly require compassionate care to prevent or minimize these symptoms, which can include:
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in weight, appetite or eating 
  • Chest pain
  • Digestion problems
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, shakiness or nausea
  • Eye or vision problems
  • Fatigue
  • Forgetfulness or confusion
  • Headaches 
  • Irritability or panic
  • Muscle weakness, tension or soreness
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Substance abuse
  • Withdrawal and isolation  

Tips to Manage Anxiety in the Elderly 

It’s normal to experience anxiety in response to stressful situations; but when it threatens to disrupt an older person’s quality of life and experience, it’s time to seek help. Treating anxiety in the elderly may include working with a psychiatrist, who’s best equipped to make an accurate diagnosis and recommend the best treatment options. Other ways to help seniors reduce anxiety include:
  • Pet therapy: Seniors who live alone might appreciate the companionship a furry friend brings. Several recent studies have shown that those who own a pet or have interactions with pets on a regular basis have lower blood pressure and cholesterol, a lower risk for heart attacks and an improved ability to handle stress. 
  • Spending time outside: Gardening benefits everyone — including older people. Pulling weeds, planting flowers and digging in the dirt can improve a person’s physical strength, reduce pain and lower stress levels. 
  • Increasing activity: Exercise doesn’t just help the body, it helps the brain, too. The endorphins released from even a low-key workout session, a brisk walk outside, chair yoga, water aerobics, dancing or low-impact weightlifting can provide a natural mood boost and fight anxiety.  
  • Growing social connections: Proactively reaching out to make social connections can effectively fight anxiety. An art class at the social center, a quilting group, a community choir or a standing weekly lunch/adventure date with friends or family helps alleviate feelings of isolation or anxiety over losing independence. 
  • Creating a daily schedule: Setting a fixed routine sets up expectations and allows the elderly to control their day. Setting times for daily activities helps seniors know what – and when – to anticipate each activity and eliminates anxiety that stems from not knowing what comes next. 
When normal concerns escalate or new age-specific worries pop up, older adults shouldn’t have to face anxiety alone. There are a range of health professionals who have experience helping older adults manage anxiety. These professionals can include counselors, social workers, therapists, physicians who specialize in geriatric medicine, massage therapists and acupuncturists. Consult with your local Area Agency on Aging for help finding programs or services that treat anxiety in the elderly. 

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