May 8, 2019

When you think back, your older loved one was open and carefree. Now, when you visit them, you find that they’re constantly fretting about major and minor things. They seem worried, nervous, frantic, and seem to get fixated on the negative at the drop of a hat.

Does this sound like your senior loved one? If it does, your elderly family member may be one of the millions of older adults experiencing an anxiety disorder.

As a family caregiver, it’s important to understand just how much anxiety can affect your senior loved ones, so you can know the “yellow flags” to watch out for, and can prepare to get your senior the help they need.

How Many Seniors Are Affected By Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health challenges facing older adults – though they are also some of the most frequently overlooked and misdiagnosed, according to a report from the Harvard Health Blog.

A significant report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that anxiety disorders affect between 3 and 14 percent of older adults. The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation goes further, suggesting that 10-20 percent of older adults experience anxiety on a regular basis. This is in line with a study from the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, brought to our attention by Mental Health America, which suggests that “more than 27 percent of older adults under the care of an aging service provider have symptoms of anxiety that may not amount to diagnosis of a disorder, but significantly impact their functioning.”

It’s important to take early warning signs of anxiety in older adults very seriously.

Over time, untreated anxiety can significantly impact a senior’s health, well-being, and quality of life. As the Institute on Aging (IOA) blog points out, anxiety can contribute to a variety of health complications, including “a weakened immune system, muscle tension, high blood sugar, nervous system fatigue, digestion problems, ulcers, cardiovascular problems, and difficulty breathing.” Anxiety can affect a senior’s ability to sleep, and may prevent them from being social, or going out and living life to the fullest. What’s more, anxiety can often lead to other mental health complications in seniors, including severe depression.

Can Seniors Experience DIfferent Types of Anxiety?

It’s important to realize that seniors can experience anxiety in many different ways. In some older adults, it may come across as “constant and debilitating worry,” as Harvard Health puts it. In others, it could manifest as phobias of routine things, or perhaps social withdrawal and isolation.

As writer Jennifer Warner explains for WebMD, there is a difference between the normal worries that accompany getting older, and treatable anxiety disorders. As the NIH succinctly puts it:

“Anxiety caused by stressful events like moving or losing a job is a normal part of life. Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, are characterized by persistent, excessive and disabling fear and worry and get progressively worse if left untreated… Anxiety disorders can severely affect a person’s life, and they are often overlooked in older adults.”

As the NIH and the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation explain, anxiety disorders can take many forms. Some of the most common categories affecting older adults include:

  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • social phobia
  • panic disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • specific phobias (like fear of flying, or fear of going out in public)

In particular, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America describes generalized anxiety disorder, sometimes shortened to GAD, as “the most common anxiety disorder among older adults.” WebMD notes that GAD “may be the most common mental disorder among the elderly,” affecting more seniors than depression.

Mental Health America defines GAD as “chronic, exaggerated worry about everyday routine life events and activities, lasting at least six months.” Seniors with GAD “almost always [anticipate] the worst even though there is little reason to expect it.”

What Are Some Signs and Symptoms to Watch Out For?

As a family caregiver, it’s important to know what “yellow flags” to watch out for when it comes to anxiety. In many cases, your senior loved one may display some common symptoms that are associated with anxiety disorders. In other events, anxiety itself could be a sign of an even larger health concern, such as dementia or chronic pain.

Here are a few common signs to look for if you suspect your senior loved one may be dealing with anxiety:

Physical Signs

According to the IOA, many anxiety disorders come with noticeable physical effects, such as:

  • Shaking hands
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pains
  • Sweating
  • Nausea/digestion problems
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty eating (which may cause weight loss)

Behavioral Changes

Some of the behaviors and attitude changes that could suggest anxiety conditions include:

  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Avoidance of certain activities, people, or places
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Distracted easily
  • Confusion
  • Obsessive thoughts (e.g., fixating on one thing and refusing to let it go)
  • Compulsive behavior
  • More frequent panic attacks
  • Negative thinking

Common “Triggers”

In many cases, anxiety might be brought about by a specific event. There are certainly lifestyle conditions and changes that can trigger bouts of anxiety, or exacerbate an anxiety disorder. For family caregivers, it may prove beneficial to watch for some of these common “triggers,” which may include:

  • Chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes, COPD, cardiovascular disease, changes to vision or hearing, etc.)
  • Financial insecurity
  • Fears of losing independence or experiencing a role reversal (such as no longer being able to drive, for instance)
  • Grief or loss
  • Recovering from an illness or accident
  • Changing medications (or dosages)

What Can Family Caregivers Do to Help?

If you believe that your senior loved one is grappling with anxiety, there are many things you can do to step in and help make things better for your aging family.

In many cases, experts recommend treatments including medication or talk therapy. In either event, you may want to take some key steps to help connect your loved one with an experienced mental health professional in your area.

You may also want to begin this process by consulting with your loved one’s primary care physician, who may be able to help make a referral – while also diagnosing and treating any of the potential physical triggers of anxiety that could be at play (such as chronic pain, high blood pressure, or sensory loss). A medical professional can also help you and your loved one review their medications, to see if anxiety could be a side effect of one of their prescriptions, or if it’s perhaps caused by an unexpected drug interaction.

In other cases, helping your loved one make some simple lifestyle changes could help improve their day-to-day quality of life and well-being. For instance, research has shown that making changes to a senior’s diet and exercise regimen can help manage or minimize feelings of anxiety. Exercises like yoga or tai chi have been shown to have enormous mental health benefits, for instance, as have engaging in simple activities ranging from listening to music, to working in the garden, to taking routine nature walks.

Finally, if your loved one’s anxiety is due to loneliness or isolation, you may want to look into bringing on a caring companion for your senior loved one. An in-home companion can help provide your loved one with the personalized attention they need, empowering your senior to live life independently. At the same time, this companion can help provide day-to-day support for your aging loved one, from helping them remember their meds, to offering driving services for mental or physical health appointments, to assisting with activities of daily living, like grooming, dressing, and doing light housework.

About Companions for Seniors

If you have a loved one that you believe could benefit from the assistance of a professional caregiver, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with the experts at Companions for Seniors.

We’re locally owned in the Chicago area, with clients in the city and suburbs, and we’re here to field any questions you may have about any aspect of caring for your aging loved one.

Our companions are trained, bonded, and insured, and can help you and your family shoulder some of the responsibility of caring for the senior in your life. We help provide seniors with a higher quality of life, while also offering respite and peace of mind for a family caregiver who might need some support.

We offer personalized care plans for each of our clients. Our caregivers can assist with activities of daily living, housekeeping, driving services, and more, all on a flexible schedule that works for you.

Have any questions? Want to get in touch? Don’t hesitate to give us a call, or fill out our contact form, available here.