Anxiety is a common illness among older adults, affecting as many as 10-20 percent of the older population, though it is often undiagnosed, according to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation (GMHF) . In fact, among adults, anxiety is the most common mental health problem for women, and the second most common for men, after substance abuse.
An anxiety disorder causes feelings of fear, worry, apprehension, or dread that are excessive or don’t realistically represent the situation at hand. There are several types of anxiety disorders, the GMHF reports. Phobia, when an individual is fearful of certain things, places or events, is the most typical type of anxiety. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is also an issue for many older adults, according to the GMHF. Those with GAD worry constantly when there may be nothing to worry about.
Here are the signs of an anxiety disorder, according to the GMHF:
Excessive worry or fear
Refusing to do routine activities or being overly preoccupied with routine
Avoiding social situations
Being overly concerned about safety
Racing heart, shallow breathing, trembling, nausea, sweating
Muscle tension, feeling weak and shaky
Self-medication with alcohol or other central nervous system depressants
What contributes to Anxiety Disorder
A number of things can contribute to an anxiety disorder, including:
Extreme stress or trauma
Bereavement and complicated or chronic grief
Alcohol, caffeine, drugs (prescription, over-the-counter, and illegal)
A family history of anxiety disorders
Other medical or mental illnesses
Neurodegenerative disorders (like Alzheimer’s or other dementias).
Aging issues, such as poor health, memory problems and losses, also could trigger anxiety as could common fears about aging such as being left alone.
What about Depression?
For older adults, depression often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, and both can be debilitating, reducing overall health and quality of life, the GMHF reports. It is important to know the signs of both anxiety and depression, and to talk with a physician about any concerns. Anxiety can interfere with memory, and significant anxiety might contribute to amnesia or flashbacks of a traumatic event.
These symptoms that last at least two weeks could be signs of depression:
Disturbed sleep (sleeping too much or too little)
Changes in appetite (weight loss or gain)
Physical aches and pains
Lack of energy or motivation
Irritability and intolerance
Loss of interest or pleasure
Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
Difficulties with concentration or decision-making
Noticeable restlessness or slow movement
Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
Changed sex drive
What you can do
If you believe your senior is suffering from an anxiety disorder, encourage him or her to see a doctor. Medications are available to treat these conditions.
Companionship may also go a long way toward decreasing feelings of isolation and loneliness, which could contribute to anxiety, according to Home Instead Senior Care® Chief Executive Officer Jeff Huber. “Seniors who are living alone may be more vulnerable to the risks of anxiety. Just knowing someone is coming to the home, whether it’s a family member or professional caregiver, can provide a senior with reassurance that they are safe and secure, which could go a long way toward preventing anxiety.”
The following are other suggestions from the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation that might help you help an aging loved one dealing with feelings of anxiety or depression:
Acknowledge your loved one’s worries and help them address any fears that can be handled. For example, if an individual is worried about finances, a visit to a financial planner may be helpful.
Have your loved one talk with family, a friend, or spiritual leader to delve into their feelings and fears.
Encourage your loved one to adopt stress management techniques that may help them alleviate some of the anxiety. Some good examples include meditation, prayer, and deep breathing from the lower abdomen.
Suggest your loved one get more exercise. Research has shown that for some people, exercise works as well as antidepressants in alleviating symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
Ask your loved one to avoid things that can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders including:
Caffeine (coffee, tea, soda, chocolate)
Over-the-counter cold medications
Alcohol (While alcohol might initially help a person relax, it eventually interferes with sleep and overall wellness, and can even contribute to anxiety, depression, and dementia.)
Propose your loved one try to limit news of current events. While it is important to stay current, too much negative news can contribute to anxiety.
After you implement a treatment, allow time for it to work. It can often take days or weeks for someone with anxiety or depression to notice a significant difference in their mood or behavior.
Julie Ann Soukoulis is the owner of Home Instead Senior care office in Rohnert Park, mother of two and passionate about healthy living at all ages. Having cared for her own two parents, she understands your struggles and aims, through her website, www.homeinstead.com/sonoma to educate and encourage seniors & caregivers. Have a caregiving or aging concern? She’d love to hear from you at 586-1516 anytime.