According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, anxiety is “one of the most common types of mental illness affecting people ages 60 and older.” The causes of anxiety in the elderly, according to the article, are not surprising: older adults are faced with their own mortality, they have physical illnesses and decreased mobility, and their independence is often reduced to some degree. Other common causes of anxiety include chronic illnesses, trouble sleeping, and side effects from medication, all of which are commonly experienced by seniors.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates that by 2041, Canada’s senior population will have “the highest rate of mental illness” in the nation. If your senior loved is having anxious thoughts, they are certainly not alone, and if you’re looking for ways to help ease your loved one’s anxiety, you’re not alone, either.
In “The Silent Geriatric Giant: Anxiety Disorders in Late Life,” Drs. Cassidy and Rector point out that it can be difficult to diagnose anxiety in seniors because “older individuals have a tendency to somatize psychiatric problems,” meaning that seniors' anxiety often displays itself via physical symptoms. If your loved one is complaining of strange physical sensations, these symptoms may be rooted in anxiety, but don't assume that this is true. Before treating any discomfort as a symptom of anxiety, be sure to set up a doctor's appointment to ensure that there are no physical ailments that require treatment.
When attempting to address a senior’s anxiety, it’s important to remember that it’s extremely probable that they grew up in a time, place, or household in which there was a stigma attached to mental illness. They may not wish to acknowledge the seriousness of mental illness, even if they are personally suffering from anxiety. Men, in particular, may be resistant to acknowledging or discussing their feelings, though this is may also be true for your female relatives. For these reasons, your senior relative might not ever admit to having “anxiety” or “depression,” but it is possible to relieve some of your loved one’s symptoms regardless of how they might define their unhappiness, consistent worries, or fears.
In this post, you’ll find five different ways to alleviate anxiety in seniors. Everyone is different, and what works for one person may not work for another, so don’t be discouraged if one of these methods doesn’t work - you can always try another. Encourage your loved one to communicate with you about their anxious feelings, if they’re willing to do so. This should help you assist them in finding the best coping strategies.
1. Social Support
Seniors commonly experience feelings of loneliness and isolation due to the fact that they are often at least somewhat limited in their mobility and may have a diminished social circle. You may have a senior relative who is recently widowed, or who has moved away from a place in which they had friendships in order to be closer to family, or whose ability to get out into the community has been reduced by physical ailments. A sense of isolation can lead to anxiety and can exacerbate existing anxious feelings.
Therefore, one of the most important things you can do for an aging loved one suffering from anxiety is to make sure they have a network of social support in place. You are undoubtedly a source of companionship, comfort, and socialization for them, but it’s important to make sure they also have this support when you are not around. Companionship can be incredibly useful in reducing anxiety: for those suffering from anxious feelings, it can be a source of great relief to know that someone is there to listen, to check up on anything concerning, and to provide pleasant socialization throughout the day.
There are many ways to provide seniors with social support. If your elderly relative has friends in the area, make an active effort to help them spend quality time with their friends. If your senior loved one is fairly mobile, look into social programs at senior centres or volunteer opportunities they might enjoy. Your family members may want to visit your loved one on alternating days, joining them for dinner in the evening or accompanying them on errands. If none of these options are feasible, you may want to explore the possibility of getting some companion care for your loved one.
2. Calming Exercises
For those who suffer from mild to moderate anxiety, calming exercises can be a useful way to ease symptoms. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends breathing exercises: concentrating on taking slow and even breaths can offer some immediate relief in anxious situations. Counting to the same number during each inhale and exhale is a good way to help even out breathing, ex. breathe in for 1… 2… 3…. 4 and breathe out for 1… 2… 3… 4.
The ADAA also recommends counting in general. In an anxious moment, it can be useful to count to ten or twenty while focusing on breathing steadily and thinking calm thoughts.
Physical exercise has also been proven to help anxiety sufferers. While physical activity can be a challenge for some seniors, there are quite a few forms of low-impact exercise to choose from. Seniors can try light (sometimes referred to as ‘gentle’) yoga, tai chi, or going for walks. For seniors who are more mobile, activities like water aerobics are also a great option.
Listening to soothing sounds is another helpful coping strategy. Seniors can sit peacefully, attempting to relax all of their muscles and calm their breathing, and listen to a selection of quiet music, natural soundtracks like ocean waves or nighttime forrest noises, or a radio program or audiobook whose narrator has a calming voice. A good first track to try this with might be “Weightless,” which neuroscientists say is the world’s calmest song. You can listen to it here.
3. Reassuring Routines
Seniors with dementia often suffer from anxiety, understandably, since forgetting can lead to panic when a person believes things are not as they should be. If your loved one has dementia, one of the best ways to relieve a bit of their anxiety is to implement a steady routine in their lives. A routine eliminates some of the surprise that may cause anxious feelings by setting expectations that will be consistently met.
Routines are also beneficial for seniors who do not have dementia but do have anxious thoughts. Routines provide a predictable daily schedule, and this predictability can be calming. Routines can also provide purpose: if your senior loved one knows they’ll be going to the senior centre each Thursday to play cards, it will provide them with something to look forward to, and they’ll have an outing and an opportunity for socialization.
4. Ease Nighttime Stress
A 2005 poll conducted by Gallup revealed that 4 in every 10 Americans over the age of fifty find themselves worrying so much at night that they have trouble falling asleep, and 1 in 4 have trouble staying asleep due to anxious feelings. Most of us wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some seniors have trouble sleeping due to medication interactions, or because of physical ailments that make reclining or laying flat uncomfortable, but we might be surprised to realize how common it is for seniors to struggle with sleep due to mental stresses. However, there are valid reasons for this anxiety: in addition to worrying about the severity of any physical discomfort they’re feeling, Dr. Sonia Ancoli-Israel points out that seniors experience nighttime anxiety “because they know it’s harder to reach help at night.” This is a completely understandable concern, and one that many seniors have.
During the night, if seniors are upset or concerned about symptoms they’re experiencing, or a strange sound they’ve heard outside, they’re much less likely to pick up the phone and call a family member or friend: they don’t want to disturb anyone unless they’re sure that their concerns actually require attention. However, the fact of the matter is that anxiety also requires and deserves attention, just as a physical ailment or suspicious activity in the neighbourhood does.
So, how should you go about easing your senior loved one’s nighttime stress? There are numerous possibilities. Perhaps it would ease your loved one’s mind to know that you or another family member will call them around the time they retire and then again in the morning, just to check in. Maybe they tend to doze while they watch the evening news, and it might be useful to try to break them of this habit so that they can sleep more easily at night rather than being kept awake by their worries.
It may also be extremely beneficial for your loved one to have a caregiver who can provide overnight supervision. A caregiver can provide companionship and comfort if your loved one wakes up in a state of distress or if they experience feelings of loneliness during the night. Sometimes, the simple knowledge that a caregiver is present will help your loved one rest more easily. A Mavencare caregiver will also record all of your loved one’s reported symptoms, and any symptoms that are out of the ordinary will be reported to Mavencare’s team of clinical managers, who will recommend a doctor’s visit if necessary. With this clinical monitoring, both you and your loved one can rest assured that they are taken care of overnight.
5. Consider Professional Help
If your loved one is experiencing moderate to severe anxiety that cannot be eased by any of the aforementioned methods, it’s a good idea to set up an appointment with their doctor to discuss medical or psychological help.
There is evidence that anti-anxiety medications can be very useful for seniors, while a smaller part of the senior population may respond positively to therapy.
If you believe your loved one’s anxiety might require medication or psychotherapy, be sure to consult their doctor and any other appropriate healthcare professionals. Anti-anxiety medications must be carefully administered to seniors, since they are often already taking a range of medications and their drug interactions need to be thoroughly monitored. Psychotherapy can be highly beneficial, but if a senior has other mental illnesses or is experiencing cognitive decline, it may not be the right choice. When it comes to treating your loved one’s anxiety, all decisions should be made with the input of a doctor who fully understands their medical history and is aware of all their current prescriptions.
Anxiety can affect anyone, and it doesn’t always have an obvious cause. Regardless of whether your senior loved one is experiencing understandable nighttime fears, suffering from a lack of support, or dealing with anxiety symptoms for any other reason, it’s essential to help them cope with and manage these feelings. Seniors may feel alarmed, confused, or even ashamed of their anxiety, but with family support, daily practices that ease panic, and consultations with medical professionals, your loved one can find relief.