Elder Care Tips: Facing Fear and Anxiety in your Aging Parents in Tampa and Clearwater, FL

When an elderly individual becomes more reclusive, begins to lose interest in activities they used to enjoy or becomes more sedentary for not apparent reason, we [adult children] typically explain these changes away as just part of the normal course of aging. This can be true to a point, but when your elderly parent seems to have lost their lust for life it is important to take a closer look at what is going on in their physical health as well as mental health.  Late-life anxiety issues have been underestimated for several reasons, according to experts. For example, older patients are less likely to report psychiatric symptoms and more likely to emphasize their physical complaints. Some psychology experts feel that anxiety is one of the most prevalent issues among older adults.

Common Fears Among the Elderly

Not all issues of anxiety need medical intervention and only a professional can help you determine the difference. Some common fears are listed below. You can help your aging parent by talking through these fears and discussing possible solutions to the  “what ifs” . Each individual will deal with these fears differently. However, if your loved one seems consumed with one or more of these fears, it may be time to involve their doctor.

Common Fears:

  • Debilitating fall or health crisis
  • Running out of money
  •  Not being able to live at home
  •  Death of a spouse or other family member
  •  Inability to manage their own activities of daily living
  •  Not being able to drive

Enlisting the help of a private duty home health agency can alleviate many of these common fears. A private duty agency can put plans into place to prevent falls, will provide companionship and friendship in the comfort of home and if any loss of independence with driving or personal hygiene should arise, home health aides can provide transportation as well as help with daily hygiene. This preserves the parent-child relationship by upholding the dignity and independence of the senior.

Recognizing Anxiety in your Aging Loved One

Recognizing an anxiety disorder in an older person poses several challenges due to an increase in physical ailments as well as cognitive issues such as dementia. For example, impaired memory may be interpreted as a sign of anxiety or dementia, and fears may be excessive or realistic depending on the person’s memory impairment.

Talking to your elderly parent or loved one about any changes in their lives is one of the best ways to find out if there is a problem.

Diagnosis should start with the primary care physician. Many older people feel more comfortable opening up to a doctor with whom they already have a relationship. Also, if they already trust their primary care physician, the chances are increased that they will go along with treatment or a referral to a mental health professional. A professional will help you and your parent determine if the fear and anxiety is a true disorder or if the anxious feelings are something that can be worked through by opening up a dialogue.

Treatment Options 

Both medication and  therapy are used to treat anxiety disorders in older persons, although clinical research on their effectiveness is still limited. Anti-depressants (specifically the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs), rather than anti-anxiety medication (such as the benzodiazepines), are the preferred medication for most anxiety disorders. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is being used increasingly to reduce anxiety in older adults. CBT may involve relaxation training, cognitive restructuring (replacing anxiety-producing thoughts with more realistic, less catastrophic ones) and exposure (systematic encounters with feared objects or situations). CBT can take up to several months and has no side effects.Successfully treating anxiety in elderly patients needs to involve a partnership between the patient, the family and the doctor. Everyone needs to agree on what the problem is and make a commitment to stick with treatment until the patient can return to normal functioning. If family does not live nearby, a Care Manager  may need to get involved to ensure someone is advocating on behalf of the patient as well as communicating regularly with all parties involved in the treatment plan.
Written by : Jenée Mendillo

  • Anxiety Disorders Association of America Newsletter, New Thinking on Anxiety and Aging: Anxiety Disorders Common in the Elderly.
  •  Adapted from Ariel J. Lang, Ph.D., and Murray B. Stein, M.D., “Anxiety Disorders: How to Recognize and Treat the Medical Symptoms of Emotional Illness,” Geriatrics. 2001 May; 56 (5): 24-27, 31-34.