When an older loved one seems to worry all the time, this could be a sign of a troubling but treatable condition.
Mom was always the carefree ringleader of family fun. Yet lately, the family has noticed that she always seems worried about things. She wonders if she left the stove on. She doesn’t like to go to the grandchildren’s sports events, fearing they’ll be injured. Though she has a nice nest egg, she is concerned about running out of money. Everyone is perplexed about what’s going on.
There are certainly things to worry about as we grow older. We worry about our health, about our financial well-being. A lifetime of accumulated wisdom might well cause us to worry about the state of the world!
But sometimes, seniors become so mired in worry that they are unable to enjoy life. If a senior is experiencing uncontrollable worries about everyday things, they may have an anxiety disorder. According to the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, between ten and twenty percent of older adults will suffer from a type of this sometimes crippling condition. Though often undiagnosed, it has a big impact on older adults and our senior support system.
How can we distinguish between normal concern and an anxiety disorder? This can be a challenge. Our bodies and brains are wired to feel a certain amount of anxiety—without it, we couldn’t survive. Our so-called “fight or flight” response protects us when we’re in real danger. All the systems of our body go into high alert. Our hearts pump more blood, our muscles tense, and stress hormones flood our bodies, preparing us to act quickly. Those physical reactions can save us from an actual threat. But what if we aren’t really in danger?
The National Institute of Health describes it this way: “Anxiety is an uneasy feeling that something may harm you or a loved one. This feeling can be normal and sometimes helpful. If you’re starting a new job or taking a test, it might make you more alert and ready for action. But sometimes anxiety can linger or become overwhelming. When it gets in the way of good health and peace of mind, it’s called an anxiety disorder.”
Seniors may experience several types of anxiety disorders. Generalized anxiety disorder means that we seem to be fretting all the time, with no real reason. Panic disorders cause sudden, frequent attacks of fear, often with no underlying trigger. Social anxiety disorder is a fear of being embarrassed, judged or ashamed that can cause people to avoid spending time with others. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a delayed reaction to a traumatic event; seniors may begin to experience PTSD after many years when illness or disability trigger old memories. Whatever the type of anxiety disorder, it’s very important to be evaluated by a professional who understands the particular psychological needs of older adults.
Home care professionals understand that anxiety can be debilitating for seniors—not only having an impact on quality of life, but also on health. Untreated, ongoing anxiety can lead to depression, dementia and cardiovascular problems. Luckily, anxiety disorders are treatable. Through a combination of cognitive therapy (“talk therapy”), lifestyle changes, stress-reduction techniques and certain medications, senior patients can see much improvement. Home care services can support them in several important ways:
Transportation to healthcare appointments—Treating anxiety can be a trial and error process at first, and a patient might have a number of healthcare appointments. But for many seniors, driving is unsafe—and can even be a trigger for anxiety! Family members often want to help, but these appointments take place during normal work hours, and having to “burden” family can make a senior feel all the more anxious. Home care professionals can transport clients to appointments with their physician, psychologist, social worker or counselor, and to recommended stress-management classes, such as tai chi or yoga.
Medication management—Certain medications are used to treat anxiety, but it’s important to take them correctly, and to have frequent re-evaluations so the doctor can check for effectiveness and possible side effects. Home care professionals can pick up prescriptions or take clients to the pharmacy. They can provide medication reminders and help clients use pill boxes and other medication organizers. Most importantly, they watch for potential side-effects such as confusion, dizziness or drowsiness.
Social support—Anxiety often leads to loneliness, which in turn increases anxiety. Home care can help seniors break this cycle. Caregivers provide caring, nonjudgmental companionship—and many clients say that knowing that the caregiver is a professional cuts down on the sense of imposing that social anxiety can cause. Home caregivers provide encouragement and assistance so clients can continue to visit with friends, participate in support group meetings, attend their faith community, and go on other outings where they can spend time with others and disrupt the tendency to “hole up.”
Supervision for exercise—Experts say that to an extent, a tendency toward anxiety is inherited. But many lifestyle factors increase the risk. At the top of the list is inactivity, and this is where yet another vicious cycle can set up: anxiety makes seniors less likely to exercise, and inactivity increases anxiety. Home caregivers help clients break this cycle by removing fall hazards, providing a steadying hand when necessary, transporting clients to exercise classes, and being an all-around cheerleader as the client follows the doctor’s exercise prescription.
Help with everyday tasks—Geriatric psychiatrists report that the inability to take care of one’s appearance and environment can be a factor in anxiety for older adults. Home caregivers help clients with bathing, dressing, grooming, housekeeping and the other activities that help provide a sense of well-being. They prepare nutritious meals so the client isn’t living on junk food. And when clients don’t have to rely on family to help with these tasks, they experience an increased sense of independence and confidence.
Evaluation and proper treatment of anxiety can help seniors enjoy the golden years that they have earned. Home care professionals support this goal.
For more information, visit the National Institute on Aging’s Anxiety Disorders web resources
Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2015.