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Anxiety in the Elderly: A Caregiver’s Guide

Know a senior struggling with anxious thoughts or feelings? Recognise the warning signs of anxiety in the elderly and discover practical ways to help your loved one manage their symptoms.

by Jo-Kym New

What You Need To Know About Anxiety

We have all felt anxious at some point in to our  lives – when we’re interviewing for a job or receiving our medical results. It’s a normal bodily response to stressful situations to alert us if danger is lurking so we can protect ourselves. Anxiety disorders on the other hand are more than temporary worries. Interestingly, anxiety in the elderly is common but often goes unrecognised. Let’s take a look at Dahlia’s case.

old asian lady

Dahlia is a newly retired teacher in her late 60’s. She worries a great deal about a lot of things in life, especially about her family. Dahlia is also particularly concerned about her neighbourhood’s safety and checks the door locks every other hour. Recently, she received news of an unexpected health crisis and this keeps her tossing and turning at night. Perhaps you know a senior loved one who is like Dahlia. Discover what you need to know about the condition and how to navigate caring for an elderly living with anxiety.

What is anxiety disorder?

An anxiety disorder is an intense and persistent response of worry or fear. Usually, it is towards something perceived or anticipated to be harmful. This condition triggers physical, emotional and/or psychological state. Consequently, this interferes with an individual’s normal daily functioning hence should be treated with care. Some examples of anxiety disorders are Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and phobia.

What are the causes and triggers? 

Many environmental and situational factors contribute to this condition, although the cause is unclear. Among them are genetics, chemical imbalance, genetics, substance abuse, other medical conditions or a traumatic event. Anxiety triggers that are more common in the elderly include:

  • Financial insecurity
  • Chronic pain or health issues
  • New retirement
  • Loneliness
  • Loss of independence
  • Loss of a loved one
  • End-of-life planning

How common are anxiety disorders in older adults?

Anxiety disorders are fairly common in older adults, affecting 10 to 20 percent of people. In fact, they are found more often in older adults than depression and cognitive disorders. For instance, a 2016 study reported that the prevalence of anxiety among the elderly in rural communities in Malaysia is 22.6 percent. In spite of that, anxiety disorders often go undiagnosed. 

Caring For an Elderly with Anxiety

Do you know an elderly family member, friend or spouse who is experiencing anxiety disorders? They might be living under the same roof or kilometres apart, and you wonder what you can do beyond saying, “Everything will be okay.” Understanding how you can be aware of the condition can be tremendous help in the way you respond and care for an elderly living with anxiety.

1. Recognise the warning signs

It’s important to stay alert of the signs or any changes to provide the right care in a loving, supportive way. Most anxiety disorders indeed share similar physical, mental or behavioural symptoms. 

Physical signs

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension or achiness
  • Difficulty sleeping (sleep disturbances, restlessness or nightmares)
  • Difficulty breathing

Mental signs

  • Irritability
  • Inability to focus
  • Memory issues
  • Confusion

Behavioural signs

  • Excessive nervousness or tension
  • Excessive intake of alcohol or medication
  • Irrational thoughts or behaviours (for example, constantly cleaning)

These symptoms are neither all present nor do they occur at the same time. However, you may notice your loved one exhibiting more than one of these signs. If that is so, consider speaking to a medical professional about how to address this. Be sure to note down any triggers or changes in their behaviour. Informing them of any medical history would also be of great help.

Caregiving can still be a physically and emotionally demanding journey, especially when you’re juggling between work and family. Homage provides professional caregiving to support you with daily activities like showering, meal preparation, medical escort and medication reminders.

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2. Seek diagnosis and treatment

If left to fester, these anxiety conditions can lead to impairments in physical, mental and social functioning. As a result, they can affect or complicate any other chronic conditions the person might have. That is why it is crucial to seek help early and nip anxiety in the bud. A psychiatrist or psychologist is trained and licensed to evaluate a person’s symptoms and make an accurate diagnosis, provide treatment options, and monitor your loved one’s recovery progress over time.

Therapy

Therapy is a great place to start when any mental health concerns are affecting your daily lives. It lets the individual open up about their feelings, and why they are feeling a certain way, as well as how to cope. This is especially useful if you find that your loved one might be in a position that requires professional help. One of the most effective types of therapy is known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT allows a person to evaluate their thinking and behavioural patterns in light of reality, and develop coping strategies. Keep in mind that improvement takes time, even with therapy. That said, if you’re willing to put in the hours to make it work, therapy can be truly rewarding.

Medication

The medical professional may also recommend medications to help treat the symptoms. For instance, antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications are frequently used to improve chemical imbalances and boost mood. Although, in certain circumstances, they may prescribe other types of medications such as sedatives or beta blockers – these are meant for short-term use only. You could ask the doctor about the benefits, risks and possible side effects too.

3. Make the most of care plans

Anxiety care often combines both medication and therapy for the most effective results, depending on the type and severity of the disorder. Getting the best care for your loved one can help them find contentment and lead a healthier lifestyle. Speak to your doctor about how you can stay involved in their road to recovery on a regular basis. Some questions you might ask are:

  • When will he/she feel better?
  • What else can he/she do to relieve my symptoms?
  • Should he/she see a psychiatrist or a psychologist?
  • Are there any resources available that can help with his/her condition?

4. Practise anxiety techniques together

5-4-3-2-1 anxiety technique

Living with anxiety can be a lonely journey, especially for an elderly person who has newly retired or lost a loved one. It might be helpful to try some anxiety management techniques out with them to help them stay motivated. The 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique is a useful practice that can be incorporated into your daily routines to keep anxiety at bay:

  • Look around you and name 5 things you see
  • Hold still and name 4 things you feel or touch
  • Listen to your surroundings and name 3 things you hear
  • Take a sniff and name 2 things you smell 
  • Swallow and name 1 thing you taste

Other helpful grounding techniques are deep breathing, meditation and journalling. These techniques can become more effective over time if you make them a habit. Thus, try making this a weekly routine for you and your senior loved one. This makes them look forward to something every week.

5. Have regular check-ins

Besides anxiety techniques, another way to care for your elderly living with anxiety is to engage in regular conversations with them. Talking can lift their spirits and make them feel supported. Begin by setting a comfortable and safe space to talk about their struggles. Then, use open-ended conversation starters that will help them process their thoughts and respond appropriately. For example, you might say, “What do you find yourself thinking about during the day?” Next, actively listen and let them know you’re here for them. You can also try using affirmations like, “I love spending time with you because you matter to me.”

Tips for new caregivers

Caregiving is a whole new territory for many with aging parents. On top of that, seeing frequent changes in your parent’s behaviour as they age can make one worrisome. Finding the right resources will allow you to navigate this transition with a head start. Here are another three ways to assist you in becoming a proactive, intentional caregiver.

1. Choosing the right care

You’re probably feeling overwhelmed trying to figure out which care is best for your elderly living with anxiety. That’s normal. Try asking those around you for tips on how they make decisions about personal care for their elderly parents. People like your friends, coworkers or relatives of the same age group are most likely looking for solutions just like you. Perhaps you’re waiting for a moment when it feels right to engage professional help. Truth be told, the sooner you start treatment, the better the outcome you might expect. As Roy T. Bennett once said, “Don’t wait for the right moment to start, start and make each moment right.

Flexible and Personalised Care At Your Fingertips

Arranging the right care plan for your aging loved one is an important and highly personal process. You are not alone. Homage offers a wide range of elderly care services to attend to their needs round-the-clock. Our Care Professionals can help you to develop a personalised care plan for your seniors that addresses everything from nutrition to medication management and regular therapy sessions. Want to speak to a Care Advisor about how to create a plan? Fill the form below and we’ll be with you shortly.

2. Finding a support group 

Maybe you don’t have many connections around you. Have you considered joining a caregiver support group in your area? A support group connects you with other family caregivers that support one another by sharing their personal experiences and practical tips. It is also an amazing place to receive guidance and encouragement to continue living a productive life as a working adult while taking care of senior parents.

3. Caring for yourself as a caregiver

The road ahead may not be an easy one. Realistically speaking, some days can be more difficult than others. Make sure you are also taking care of your own physical and mental health as you care for others. Take one intentional step at a time – First start with small goals, then take a breather every once in a while, and lastly, celebrate your little victories.

We’re Here For You

Homage offers a zero-commitment consultation with its Care Advisors to better understand the care needs of your loved ones and offer some clarity on the services that Homage can provide. And, it’s free! Opt for our care packages and save up to 20% of the caregiving cost. Alternatively, you can consider a la carte service options to better suit your care needs.

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References
  1. Abdul Manaf, M. R., Mustafa, M., Abdul Rahman, M. R., Yusof, K. H., Abd Aziz, N. A. (2016). Factors Influencing the Prevalence of Mental Health Problems among Malay Elderly Residing in a Rural Community: A Cross-Sectional Study. PLoS One, 11(6). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0156937. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27280529/ 
  2. American Psychological Association. (2017). What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral 
  3. Institute of Aging. (2018, July 5). Anxiety in the Elderly: Symptoms and Restorative Strategies. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://blog.ioaging.org/mental-illness/anxiety-in-the-elderly-symptoms-and-restorative-strategies/ 
  4. Mayo Clinic. (2018, May 8). Anxiety disorders. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961 
  5. Migala, J. (2021, April 6). 4 Common Types of Anxiety Medications Doctors Prescribe (and Their Side Effects). Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.thehealthy.com/mental-health/anxiety/anxiety-medications-side-effects/ 
  6. Raypole, C. (2018, January 19). Why Should I Go to Therapy? 8 Signs It’s Time to See a Therapist. GoodTherapy.org. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/why-should-i-go-to-therapy-8-signs-its-time-to-see-a-therapist-0118197 
  7. Smith, S. (2018). 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique for Anxiety. University of Rochester Medical Center Rochester. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/behavioral-health-partners/bhp-blog/april-2018/5-4-3-2-1-coping-technique-for-anxiety.aspx 
  8. What to Know About Anxiety in Older Adults. (2021, October 13). Webmd. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/what-to-know-about-anxiety-in-older-adults#1 
About the Writer
Jo-Kym New
Jo-Kym is an inbound marketer who is deeply passionate about mental health and family relationships. Her creative outlets are journalling, mobile photography, food and fashion.
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