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Anxiety: The Real Reason Mom Won’t Leave the House

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Anxiety is a common illness among older adults, affecting as many as 10-20 percent of the older population, though it is often undiagnosed, according to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation (GMHF) . In fact, among adults, anxiety is the most common mental health problem for women, and the second most common for men, after substance abuse.

An anxiety disorder causes feelings of fear, worry, apprehension, or dread that are excessive or don’t realistically represent the situation at hand. There are several types of anxiety disorders, the GMHF reports. Phobia, when an individual is fearful of certain things, places or events, is the most typical type of anxiety. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is also an issue for many older adults, according to the GMHF. Those with GAD worry constantly when there may be nothing to worry about.

The Signs

Here are the signs of an anxiety disorder, according to the GMHF:

  • Excessive worry or fear
  • Refusing to do routine activities or being overly preoccupied with routine
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Being overly concerned about safety
  • Racing heart, shallow breathing, trembling, nausea, sweating
  • Poor sleep
  • Muscle tension, feeling weak and shaky
  • Hoarding/collecting
  • Depression
  • Self-medication with alcohol or other central nervous system depressants

What Contributes to Anxiety Disorder

A number of things can contribute to an anxiety disorder, including:

  • Extreme stress or trauma
  • Bereavement and complicated or chronic grief
  • Alcohol, caffeine, drugs (prescription, over-the-counter, and illegal)
  • A family history of anxiety disorders
  • Other medical or mental illnesses
  • Neurodegenerative disorders (like Alzheimer’s or other dementias).

Aging issues, such as poor health, memory problems and losses, also could trigger anxiety as could common fears about aging such as being left alone.

What About Depression?

For older adults, depression often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, and both can be debilitating, reducing overall health and quality of life, the GMHF reports. It is important to know the signs of both anxiety and depression, and to talk with a physician about any concerns. Anxiety can interfere with memory, and significant anxiety might contribute to amnesia or flashbacks of a traumatic event.

These symptoms that last at least two weeks could be signs of depression:

  • Disturbed sleep (sleeping too much or too little)
  • Changes in appetite (weight loss or gain)
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Lack of energy or motivation
  • Irritability and intolerance
  • Loss of interest or pleasure
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Difficulties with concentration or decision-making
  • Noticeable restlessness or slow movement
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
  • Changed sex drive

What You Can Do

If you believe your senior is suffering from an anxiety disorder, encourage him or her to see a doctor. Medications are available to treat these conditions.

Companionship may also go a long way toward decreasing feelings of isolation and loneliness, which could contribute to anxiety, according to Home Instead Senior Care®  Chief Executive Officer Jeff Huber. “Seniors who are living alone may be more vulnerable to the risks of anxiety. Just knowing someone is coming to the home, whether it’s a family member or professional caregiver, can provide a senior with reassurance that they are safe and secure, which could go a long way toward preventing anxiety.”

The following are other suggestions from the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation that might help you help an aging loved one dealing with feelings of anxiety or depression:

  • Acknowledge your loved one’s worries and help them address any fears that can be handled. For example, if an individual is worried about finances, a visit to a financial planner may be helpful.
  • Have your loved one talk with family, a friend, or spiritual leader to delve into their feelings and fears.
  • Encourage your loved one to adopt stress management techniques that may help them alleviate some of the anxiety. Some good examples include meditation, prayer, and deep breathing from the lower abdomen.
  • Suggest your loved one get more exercise. Research has shown that for some people, exercise works as well as antidepressants in alleviating symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
  • Ask your loved one to avoid things that can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders including:
    • Caffeine (coffee, tea, soda, chocolate)
    • Nicotine (smoking)
    • Over-eating
    • Over-the-counter cold medications
    • Alcohol (While alcohol might initially help a person relax, it eventually interferes with sleep and overall wellness, and can even contribute to anxiety, depression, and dementia.)
  • Propose your loved one try to limit news of current events. While it is important to stay current, too much negative news can contribute to anxiety.

After you implement a treatment, allow time for it to work. It can often take days or weeks for someone with anxiety or depression to notice a significant difference in their mood or behavior.

Learn more about the dangers of self-medicating with alcohol. And for more information about mental health as an important component of healthy aging, check out the resources of the World Federation for Mental Health.

Last revised: October 9, 2019

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