Helping Elderly Loved Ones Through Anxiety of Aging

Anxiety can develop for a variety of reasons in older people, from fear of falling to physical or emotional distress. Find out what warning signs to watch for and how to help.

Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH

According to the National Institutes of Health, 3 to 14 percent of older adults experience anxiety disorders in a given year. Older people can experience anxiety for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes it may stem from particular circumstances like suffering from extreme stress, trauma, or bereavement. Other times, a physical cause may be to blame, such as neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease or another medical or even mental illness. A family history of anxiety can be a contributing factor as can alcohol, caffeine, or drugs — prescription, over-the-counter, or illegal ones.

Sometimes anxiety in elderly relatives is just related to the circumstances of aging. “Anxiety can come from common fears related to aging such as falling and suffering a debilitating injury; being unable to afford living expenses such as rent, medication, and food; being victimized; being dependent on others; feeling alone; and fear of death,” said Alice Jacobs Vestergaard, EdD, certified health education specialist and faculty member at Ashford University’s College of Health, Human Services, and Science in San Diego, Calif.

Anxiety in Elderly: Recognizing the Symptoms

Anxiety can be accompanied by a number of symptoms. Physical tipoffs include a racing heart, shallow breathing, trembling, nausea, sweating, a change in appetite, or insomnia.

Behaviorally, anxious older adults may refuse to do routine activities or become overly preoccupied with their routine, may avoid social situations, might focus too much on one particular issue, or may begin to hoard.

They can also experience changes emotionally. They may worry excessively, become moody, or seem depressed. Self-medicating can be another possible indication of anxiety.

Anxiety in Elderly: The Repercussions

Excessive anxiety in elderly people can have a number of negative consequences. Making excuses and avoiding certain activities can be limiting socially and physically. Self-medicating with alcohol or pain pills can lead to sleeping more and dangerous habits.

Depression may also result, especially if there are other things going on in the older person’s life. “Changing life circumstances can lead to anxiety or depression, and elders may have both simultaneously, making the diagnosis challenging,” said Dr. Vestergaard. “Elders may be dealing with changing physical conditions, loss of friends/family, children moving away, increasing frailty, and illness — all may trigger anxiety and depression.”

Anxiety in Elderly: Getting Help

If you suspect that a loved one is experiencing anxiety, it is important that you help him to seek treatment. Be aware that this may be challenging because some older people may not feel comfortable discussing mental health.

The primary care physician should be the first stop to rule out physical problems. Many older people also feel more open talking to someone they already know. If need be, the doctor can provide a referral to a mental health specialist.

If fear of falling is a trigger, ask the physician if there are any local programs to help overcome this issue. A study in the November 2012 issue of The Gerontologist found that participating in an eight-week cognitive behavioral program designed to help older people address this concern reduced both the incidence of falls and fear of falling.

Senior groups and organizations can be a helpful resource for assistance as well.

Finally, if health permits, don’t underestimate the value of encouraging the senior to help others through volunteer work. “This provides a meaningful focus and purpose that can help them manage their changing circumstances,” said Vestergaard.


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