Anxiety can be a significant problem as seniors age. Every year, about 10% of the population of adults over 65 is diagnosed with a clinical anxiety disorder, and 15% of people who live past retirement will have had some kind of recognizable anxiety condition.
Anxiety in Older Adults
Unfortunately, it can sometimes be hard to recognize anxiety in an aging loved one. Many people assume that increased fear and worry is a normal part of the aging process, an expected result that comes with concerns about health and end-of-life issues. However, anxiety disorders extend well beyond these normal responses and can actually affect a senior’s ability to manage his or her daily life. This is not considered to be a normal or unavoidable part of aging.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
There are several types of anxiety disorders that most commonly affect seniors:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – this is one of the most common and generic forms of anxiety. The APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual defines it as, “the almost constant presence of worry or tension, even when there is little or no cause.” With this condition, your loved one will be in a constant state of anxiety for no real reason. In many cases, you may see the person projecting their fear into a variety of different situations, such as a health issue or a financial problem. But unlike a rational concern, it won’t resolve itself once the specific issue is resolved. The subject will simply transfer their anxiety to another situation and you may even find your loved one anxious over problems that don’t seem to exist.
- Social anxiety or social phobia disorder – this is a “persistent and irrational fear” of social situations. It can often cause or occur in combination with severe isolation. This should be a concern for older adults who live alone and have few friends or interests outside of the house. It can also manifest with a physical disability which becomes an excuse to stay home and avoid social situations.
- Specific phobia – this is another “irrational fear” about something that doesn’t pose an actual danger. It’s somewhat easier to recognize than GAD or social anxiety. You may see your loved one suddenly become fearful about something which they were not previously afraid of. It could be anything from dogs, to water, to closed interior spaces.
- PTSD – many people are unaware that post traumatic stress disorder can manifest long after the actual date of the stressor. Older adults, who are no longer working, have more time to reminisce about the past and may find themselves taking stock of their life and the difficulties they have faced. In some cases this, combined with changes in the brain that occur with age, can lead to PTSD in seniors who have had violent or traumatic experiences in the past. Be aware that there may be experiences that your loved one has never shared with you.
Recognizing Anxiety in Seniors
Anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways. Many older adults have been trained to repress their emotions and may recognize physical symptoms more that emotional ones. They may have chest pains or difficulty breathing. Very severe anxiety can take the form of a panic attack with physical symptoms that seem similar to a heart attack. Sleeping disorders are common also, both inability to sleep and a constant desire to sleep in order to escape the anxiety of being awake. Eating disorders or changes in weight can also be associated with anxiety, and many older people with substance abuse problems are actually attempting to self-medicate their anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is often present along with another mental disorder such as depression. Depression can be a significant problem among older adults who have stopped working and don’t have many friends or other interests to keep them busy. Seniors without a social network become increasingly isolated and may find it harder and harder to remain positive. Isolation, depression, and anxiety in seniors can create a cycle that is difficult to break. Retired seniors who live alone have fewer reasons to interact with others on a daily basis; this isolation can create depression and increased anxiety about going out and dealing with social situations. Social phobia in turn increases the level of isolation and depression. This situation often contributes to physical mobility problems and can even create serious cardiac and respiratory issues.
Helping Seniors Cope with Anxiety
If this describes a senior you know, there are many ways in which you can help. Medication can be prescribed in many cases of GAD, PTSD, or social anxiety. This can alter thought patterns in the brain at a chemical level which may be necessary in severe cases. Low doses are recommended to minimize side effects. In other cases, therapy and education on how to properly manage anxiety can be effective. This can teach seniors new ways to analyze their problems and better cope with the issues of aging. For anyone looking at supportive treatment of an anxiety disorder, positive relationships are the key. Seniors who have someone with whom they are close, someone they trust who understands their issues, have a much better chance of breaking out of the cycle of anxiety and isolation.
Building Supportive Relationships
Many people with aging loved ones feel responsible for providing this kind of close relationship. In some cases this can work, especially where a close bond already exists. In others, the young relative may struggle to find the time to build a relationship and the senior may feel they are a burden and react defensively by withdrawing even further into isolation. This commonly occurs between elders and their adult children and is commonly referred to as “adult child role reversal.”
Professional supportive relationships can sometimes be more effective than personal ones, even when the younger relative has their aging loved one’s best interest at heart. Professional home care agents can be especially effective since they see the senior in their own home for a much more extended period of time than an attending physician. Professional caregivers are trained in recognizing the signs of anxiety; they lack the subjective involvement of a relative, and many seniors feel more comfortable opening up with someone who they know has a detached non-judgmental perspective.
The Benefits of Home Care for Seniors
Seniors who receive home care are much less likely to devolve into a cycle of isolation, depression, and anxiety. The visits will help to maintain a normal level of companionship and social interaction which greatly reduces the risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Seniors receiving home care are also much more likely to get prompt treatment if they do start to develop anxiety. For seniors already having problems, professional home care can be one of the most effective ways to help break the negative cycle. Professional caregivers understand the necessity of giving positive encouragement and gentle persistent reminders to overcome destructive behavior patterns that lead to anxiety or social phobia.
Contact us to Learn More About Home Care in Fairfax, VA
Organizing the care for an aging loved one can be overwhelming, but Caring Hands Matter is here to help! We are available to discuss Fairfax, VA home care options for your aging loved one. This can be a valuable service for your relative, whether you think there is currently a problem or not. Relationships build over time and as seniors become more accustomed to home care visits, they will be more willing to open up and share their problems. This can give you a valuable window into your loved one’s psyche and daily habits as they age. It will make you much more able to understand what they are going through. For more information, please call or contact Caring Hands Matter online today.