Anxiety is a natural part of the human condition. You might feel anxious when you’re dealing with a problem, entering a new situation, or coping with a major life transition. This is a normal reaction that helps us handle stressors in our lives. However, when anxiety is an ever-present, overwhelming feeling that interrupts daily functioning and important relationships, it indicates that it may be an anxiety disorder. When you are the caregiver of an elderly person, you may have noticed that they struggle with anxious thoughts, and wonder if they need help.
What is an Anxiety Disorder?
An anxiety disorder is characterized by a level of fear, worry, dread, or apprehension that is disproportionate to the situation at hand. This is an umbrella term under which several specific disorders fall.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
- Phobias: A phobia is an extreme fear of something that doesn’t genuinely pose a threat. There are several common phobias that you may be familiar with, including heights, spiders, enclosed spaces, and air travel. When faced with the source of their anxiety, people with phobias experience physical symptoms of anxiety, such as nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, or chest pains, and may even have a panic attack. It’s common for older adults to have phobias of doctors, as well as a debilitating fear of their own death or the death of loved ones.
- Social anxiety disorder (social phobia): Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, is a disorder that causes an individual to feel extremely self-conscious and anxious when faced with social situations. Social anxiety is common in older adults, who might feel ashamed of memory loss impacting social relationships or how their appearance has changed, whether due to aging or illness. Social anxiety makes it difficult to make friends and maintain relationships as the individual may avoid or be preoccupied with worry during social situations.
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent worry, even if there is no direct source of these concerns. People with GAD have difficulty concentrating, sleeping, and relaxing because they are consumed with fears about things such as health problems, money, family, or hypothetical disasters. People with GAD may experience irritability, muscle tension, trembling, nausea, sweating, feeling out of breath, headaches, chest pain, and hot flashes.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that develops after a traumatic event. This involves the threat of or actual physical harm of the individual, or being a witness to such an event. Symptoms of PTSD can manifest months or even years after the event. For the elderly, they may begin to experience PTSD symptoms from a trauma event that occurred decades before due to something in the present that triggers them, such as feeling helpless due to being newly confined to a wheelchair. PTSD symptoms include dissociation, emotional numbness, low mood, being easily startled, flashbacks, nightmares, and irritability/aggression.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): It’s not common for the elderly to develop OCD, but some may. OCD is characterized by persistent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). People with OCD often experience fear of committing violence or harm against loved ones, and repetitive behaviors such as counting, repeatedly checking things, and touching things may help soothe these worries. Some people with OCD hoard things, or are preoccupied by keeping things symmetrical.
- Panic disorder: Panic disorder is characterized by panic attacks, which are sudden, extreme fits of terror that manifest in chest pain, sweating, faintness, dizziness, nausea, or heart palpitations. These attacks generally subside within 10 minutes, but can last longer. While panic disorder isn’t common among the elderly, those who experience panic attacks may fear being left alone, or they may mistake their symptoms for a heart attack.
Why Is Anxiety a Concern for the Elderly?
Anxiety isn’t just distressing to your mental health; it can also have a serious impact on your physical health. Anxiety is also highly comorbid with depression, which can also deplete quality of life. Finally, anxiety has an effect on memory, which can contribute to the struggle elderly adults already face with aging. Given the very real impact anxiety has on the lives of the elderly, it’s important to help connect them with the resources they need.
Does My Elderly Loved One Have Anxiety?
If you suspect that your elderly loved one might have anxiety, consider these different aspects:
- Daily Routine: Is this person removing themselves from their usual activities? Have they begun to avoid certain people or places? Have they lost interest in things they once enjoyed?
- Worrying: Are they worrying more than they usually do? Are they worrying about things that never concerned them before?
- Medication: Are they taking their medication as prescribed? Have they started taking a different dose of their medication?
- Substance Use: Are they drinking alcohol more than they used to? Are they drinking to excess? Are they using any other substances?
- Mood: Are they quicker to tears than usual? Do they seem “down”? Alternatively, do they seem numb to emotions? Do they express that they “just don’t feel right”?
How to Help an Elderly Loved One With Anxiety
When helping a loved one with anxiety of any age, it can be hard to know what to do. It’s important that you keep calm. While you should acknowledge their fears, you should not feed into them. Be supportive and encourage them to participate in social activities. Connecting them with a medical professional who can help with treatment is important.
If you’re looking for a home health aide in Fort Collins, we would love to help. Contact Evergreen Home Healthcare today!