Last year, the pandemic brought new practices to protect our physical health. We learned to quarantine and maintain social distancing. Visits to extended family ceased. Social outlets vanished as restaurants and gyms closed. Friendly get-togethers turned into zoom calls.
While these tactics protected our physical health, they were tough emotionally, particularly for older adults. Twenty-four percent of adults over 65 admitted to feeling anxiety or depression in a recent KFF survey.
Anxiety occurs when there are feelings of fear or worry that are disproportional to the situation. Feeling anxious when driving on a slippery road in a snowstorm is appropriate. Feeling anxious at home in your pajamas before bedtime is not.
How to Help Seniors Overcome Anxiety
Fortunately, there are ways to help older adults reduce their anxiety.
1. Listen actively: understand what is worrying your loved one. It could be financial worries, grief, health concerns, fear of mortality or isolation. Encourage them to air their concerns. If there are practical ways to address issues, such as speaking to a financial planner, coordinate that solution. One of the biggest problems with seniors is that people end up not listening about them and not caring. Just show that you care by actually listening.
2. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness and meditation practices teach us to release expectations and focus on the present moment. These practices benefit everyone – older adults, persons with dementia and caregivers. The benefits of mindfulness for people with memory loss are:
- Reduces psychological stress
- Centers the body
- Allows for self-soothing
- Creates better sleeping habits
- Improves quality of life
Benefits for family members and caregivers include:
- Maintaining the right focus
- De-escalating aggressive behavior
- Coping with caregiving responsibilities
- Encouraging empathy
- Providing better care
3. Maintain routines: those who are dependent on caregivers can’t control basic decisions like when and what to eat. But having a consistent schedule eliminates some of the uncertainty that causes anxious feelings. For seniors who are anxious but do not have memory loss, knowing they will meet friends to play cards each week (when it is safe to do so) gives them something positive to anticipate.
Look for the different activities seniors could enjoy while remembering the fact that everyone is different. Simply because the cliché is that an older adult would love bingo does not mean it is actually correct. In fact, some might want to join a baseball or cricket club. Get back to point one in this list and actively listen. Talk to seniors to set up routines that can be maintained.
4. Move your body. Exercise releases endorphins, the “happy hormone” that elevates your mood. Being active leads to improved sleep, which is important for older adults who often have disrupted sleep patterns. For some older adults, physical activity is a challenge. But they can do “gentle” yoga, tai chi or go for walks. Other benefits of exercise are:
- Disease prevention
- Improved balance and strength and decreased risk of falls
- Improved cognitive function
- Social engagement
Discuss with the senior to see what he/she loves doing for exercise. There is always something that can be considered and that a senior would love. Some love swimming while others would love to do some yoga. Learn what the senior wants through communication, of course.
5. Seek professional help: if symptoms of anxiety persist for more than six months, inform the primary care physician. The physician can determine if the symptoms are caused by medical conditions, an anxiety disorder or both. Signs of an anxiety disorder include:
- Excessive fear or worry
- Self-medication with alcohol or other depressants
- Preoccupation with routine or refusing to do routine activities
- Avoidance of social situations
- Poor sleep
Many older adults experiencing anxiety had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder when they were younger. Counseling or psychotherapy lets individuals share their feelings with a trusted therapist and develop coping strategies. For persons with memory loss, talk therapy is useful in the early or mid-stages of dementia.
Medications, such as antidepressants are another treatment option. If older adults are referred to therapy, the primary care physician should coordinate care to avoid medication interactions.
Helping Seniors Overcome Anxiety
The measures we take to safeguard our health during a pandemic can lead to isolation and feelings of anxiety. These issues can be magnified in older adults who miss interactions with family members. But there are steps that seniors can take to reduce stress and adopt a new perspective. Use the ideas mentioned here to calm your mind, lift your spirits and create new coping strategies.
As you clearly noticed, the most important part of the process is always to actively listen. Seniors will actually tell you what they want to do, what they hate, and what they love. Obviously, in many cases, you will need to coordinate what can be done with recommendations from doctors. However, this is not at all difficult to do and only requires patience and information.
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