Managing Elders’ Anxiety

If you are an adult with aging parents or grandparents, sixty-five years or older, you are aware of the challenges that age may pose. Though many seniors today are still very active, dynamic, mentally fit and functional, some may exhibit excessive cautiousness, reluctance to engage in previously enjoyed activities that may pose a risk or inconvenience, tend to reserve energy, are more hesitant in decision making, are less social or may be suffering from anxiety that is hindering their ability to fully benefit from life’s joys.

The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation defines Signs of Anxiety Disorders as:

  • Exhibiting excessive worry or fear.
  • Refusing to do routine activities or avoiding tasks.
  • Recoiling from social situations.
  • Becoming overly concerned about safety.
  • Developing Physiological symptoms: Racing heart, shallow breathing, trembling, nausea, sweating.
  • Having difficulty sleeping or rising.
  • Developing muscle tension, feeling weak and shaky.
  • Becoming obsessed with material possessions such as Hoarding.
  • Developing apathy or depression.
  • Resorting to self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to reduce the fear and vulnerability.

Michael Dugas of the University of Laval, Quebec described General Anxiety Disorder as: “Intolerance of uncertainty and developing excessive worry of two types: Worry about immediate problems, such as meeting deadlines at work and worry about improbable future events such as one’s child dying in a car accident.” He adds, “Patients need to learn to seek direct problem-solving tools and avoid or neutralize the threatening mental images.”

In my experience working with elderly patients and their families, I learned that some of the most common fears seniors have are: Feeling alone, nervous, uncertain or insecure about their value and safety of their existence, being dependent, abandoned and valueless. These are common emotions experienced by all people in response to new, unfamiliar and/or challenging experiences. Being mildly anxious may enable them to stay alert and cope better in new circumstances.

When anxiety becomes one’s predominant emotion – it may cripple him/her and limit one’s capacity to logically process any given information. These are symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder, not a mental deterioration. Seniors’ fears about living alone, having less energy, a weaker body, being dependent on others and helpless in an emergency certainly justifies their fears and sense of abandonment. It is understandable why elderly seniors would become anxious. This is appropriate – not pathological!

Help reduce an elder’s anxiety:

  • Ask the elder about his/her concerns.
  • Affirm the logic of his/her thoughts and the validity of his/her emotions.
  • Ask about the senior’s preferences for change. If it is associated with change in others’ behavior, attempt to solicit their cooperation.
  • Validate the reasons behind his/her fears or worries about any change in living arrangement and volunteer to help set up a visit for exploration.
  • Kindly list some of his/her observable positive traits. Emphasize that he/she is worthy, lovable and deserving of peace and satisfaction in life.
  • Offer to assist in any way to help the individual –because he/she matters and is a precious being!

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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