January 27, 2020

Stress is an unfortunate fact of life for millions of people around the planet — including countless seniors. In fact, stress is incredibly common among elderly adults here in the U.S., and can lead to serious health consequences if left ignored or overlooked. 

First and foremost, it’s important to understand just what stress is, and what it may mean for seniors. Put simply, stress is the body reacting to a perceived danger, as Harvard Health explains. Once your system senses a challenge,your body reacts by tightening up your muscles and releasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Generally speaking, this process comes with an increase in heart rate, heavier breathing, and a spike in blood pressure. 

In short doses, the stress reaction can actually be useful and productive, and the routine “isn’t harmful if it occurs once in a while,” according to Harvard Health

However, frequent or chronic stress can have a serious lasting impact, leading to a host of serious health conditions over time. This is particularly true for older adults, who may have more difficulty reacting to stressful events or situations. 

As Dr. Michelle Dossett, an internal and integrative medicine specialist at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, put it to Harvard Health: 

“We tend to have less resilience to stress [as we age], and older adults often find that stress affects them differently now.”

Common Sources of Stress for Seniors

Growing older can certainly come with a number of very real sources of stress for seniors.

Many older adults suffer severe stress as a result of coping with a long-term chronic illness. For others, dealing with age-related changes such as memory loss, hearing loss, vision loss, or decreased mobility can create significant feelings of stress. Many seniors will also feel stressed if they feel that they are losing their independence, falling out of touch with friends and family, or adjusting to unexpected changes in their lifestyle or daily routine. 

Seniors can also face many remarkably stressful situations over time. It is only natural to feel stress after losing a loved one, for example. Many older adults grapple with loneliness and social isolation, which can exacerbate many of the effects of stress, including depression, anger, and anxiety. 

Finally, there are all of the day-to-day challenges that can bring stress for people of all ages, like managing finances, having difficult conversations with family caregivers, dealing with the changing weather, or going through the process of researching long-term care options or creating an estate plan. 

In all of these situations and more, seniors are often at a disadvantage when it comes to facing and managing stress, as Dr. Dossett explains, telling Harvard Health: “Our cells are aging. Heart fitness and lung capacity decline, especially if you’re sedentary.” These physical changes can keep seniors “from adequately accommodating the body’s natural stress response.” Similarly, many older adults have difficulty sleeping, and others face challenges with getting proper nutrition. In both cases, it can be difficult for the body to get the restorative care it needs, causing the cognitive effects of stress to worsen over time. 

The Long-Term Effects of Stress

For older adults and the family caregivers who love and support them, it’s important to know the warning signs of severe stress — and its long-term effects. 

For seniors, stress can cause a variety of serious physical and mental effects if left unaddressed, including insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Chronic stress can also cause serious health conditions like diabetes and heart disease to grow worse. As the American Institute of Stress notes, stress can also contribute to dementia, increase inflammation, weaken the immune system, and accelerate biologic aging. 

One of the most important things family caregivers can do is to keep an eye on their senior loved ones, looking out for common symptoms of stress before they have a chance to bring down your loved one’s quality of life. As Harvard Health explains, signs of stress in the elderly may include: 

  • Tension headaches
  • Back pain
  • Indigestion
  • Poor concentration
  • Indecisiveness 
  • Crying
  • Irritability and edginess
  • Changes in appetite

How to Help an Older Adult Manage Stress

If you suspect a loved one is suffering from severe stress, encourage them to consult with a doctor to get specialized attention and advice. A medical professional can offer tailored recommendations, and help determine if an older adult’s increased stress levels are coming from an underlying health condition, or making a chronic illness worse. 

There are also some practical, everyday steps you can take to help a senior manage feelings of stress and reduce their impact. Here are five ideas for helping older adults manage stress: 

1.) Practice Relaxation Techniques

As the American Institute of Stress notes: 

“A big part of stress management focuses on triggering the opposite of the stress response: the relaxation response, which helps lower blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, and stress hormones.”

Some popular ways to help seniors get this much-needed response include structured breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, and calming physical activities such as yoga and tai chi. 

2.) Engage In Physical Activity

For people of all ages, regular exercise has been shown to help elevate mood, improve overall health, and reduce feelings of stress. If your loved one seems to be experiencing excessive stress, it may help to get active, in line with their health goals and current fitness levels. Every bit of movement helps; even walking around the block or taking up a few chores throughout the house can make an enormous difference. 

3.) Watch What You Eat

Diet is closely tied to mental and physical health. Encourage and empower your older loved ones to eat regularly, and focus on helping them prepare nutrient-dense, healthy meals full of foods that they love. Make it easy for seniors to get the nutrition they need by serving senior-friendly meals with foods that are easy to chew and require little effort to serve. Make it a point to ensure that your loved one has a dining companion as often as possible; research shows that sharing meals can make seniors feel happier and more satisfied, and lead to better nutrition overall. 

4.) Seek Out Social Support

The research is clear: Staying socially engaged and active is one of the most effective ways to help seniors enjoy better health and quality of life as they age. There are all sorts of ways to get your loved one the companionship they need to truly thrive. In addition to helping them spend more time with family and friends, look for local senior groups, or places where they can take classes, meet new people, or get involved in the community. Many older adults can also benefit enormously from the regular attention of a senior companion, who can join them to share meals, swap stories, play games, and go on outings. 

5.) Find Relaxing, Enjoyable Activities

Helping your loved one pick up a new skill or enjoy a hobby can make an enormous difference for their health, happiness, and well-being. Practicing art, playing music, working on “brain games,” solving puzzles, gardening, and getting out into nature can all help distract from stressors and provide real, lasting health benefits in their own right. 

Companions for Seniors Is Here to Help Make Caregiving Easier

If you have an elderly 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. We’re always here and happy to help in any way we can, including fielding any questions you may have about caring for your aging loved one.

Our companions are trained and bonded, and can help you and your family manage some of the daily responsibilities 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 those family caregivers who might need some support. 

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

Have any questions? Want to get in touch? Whenever you’re ready, give us a call at 866-910-9020, or fill out our handy online contact form, available here.