When Worry Becomes a Concern
Tips for helping seniors cope with anxiety
By Caroline Tapp-McDougall
Many older adults experience sudden and serious life changes, which are often a source of anxiety. Common reasons for worry include:
• reduced physical and mental capacity
• loss of autonomy
• fixed income and an increase in medical expenses
• illness in and loss of family and friends
• need for relocation
As an adult child of aging parents, you might notice a change in their behaviour as a result of stress, depression or anxiety. You may be concerned with your parents’ well-being and ability to cope with these life changes. Fortunately, you can help to reduce the impact of some such events.
First, recognize what you can and cannot plan for. Reviewing administrative matters—wills, insurance policies, budgets and contractual obligations—on an ongoing basis will help keep things in order and prevent unnecessary worrying or surprises later on.
Second, involve your loved one and other family members in discussions about potential changes ahead of time. Talk about options well in advance to provide time for questions, discussions about alternatives and professional advice.
In the case of parents who are widowed, grief and loneliness are often compounded by the need to assume new responsibilities such as cooking, grocery shopping, auto repairs or finances. It is important to help your parent learn new skills. Be patient and help him or her learn how to make new friends and live alone.
If your loved one shows symptoms of anxiety for six months or more, he or she might have what’s called an anxiety disorder. Conditions that are considered anxiety disorders include phobias, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Anxiety disorders affect more than a person’s mood. They can increase the risk of physical disabilities, cause memory loss, decrease social interaction and diminish overall quality of life and health.
General anxiety disorder occurs most often in the elderly, affecting about seven per cent of seniors and women more often than men. However, it is not a normal part of aging. It often manifests itself in physical ways and can be mistaken for dementia. Depression may be the result of or coexist with an anxiety disorder, and may also be a warning of other problems or a symptom of abuse.
For the children of aging parents, it is important to recognize that older adults may be reluctant to seek professional help. Previous generations viewed mental illness as a weakness and for many older people, that mindset may still prevail. Keep an eye out for a parent who worries excessively about routine events, refuses to take part in social situations, is restless or irritable, and has newly developed apathy and trouble sleeping. People who have had a similar disorder in their youth are more susceptible to experiencing it again as they age.
Check to see if your loved one recently started a new medication that might have side effects like the ones you’re witnessing or be interacting with other medications to bring them about. In addition, talk with your parents about what is bothering them. You may find they are worried about something that you’re able to fix quickly and easily.
If you remain concerned, talk to your loved one’s family doctor, social worker or geriatric care manager. Anxiety disorders can be hereditary rather than circumstantial. Either medication or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may be recommended. Be aware that anti-anxiety medications can often have a different effect on seniors than younger adults and may cause side effects or interact with other prescriptions. CBT can be effective, but may not be available immediately and can take up to six months to complete.
Elderly people, their families and even their doctors often fail to recognize the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, blaming old age and its associated health problems. But adult children need to listen to the concerns of their parents. These worries are very real. By minimizing, ignoring or denying the fears of your loved ones, you may make them feel even more isolated and unsupported.