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How to Calm an Elderly Person with Anxiety

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A senior woman looks out the window in worry as she clasps her hands.

Managing Anxiety

Anxiety can happen to anyone at any age. Yet, older adults may be less likely to ask for help when feeling overwhelmed, afraid, or depressed. They may not understand why they’re experiencing panic attacks or irritability. 

Knowing how to calm or help your loved ones can be challenging, especially when they may have other health conditions complicating their lives. Whether your loved one lives independently or in assisted living, there are ways you can support their mental health.

Common Anxiety Disorders in Seniors

Multiple studies have looked at excessive anxiety in older adults to study how it impacts their health, such as decreasing their ability to perform daily activities. One study discovered that 3–14% of older adults meet the criteria for anxiety disorders. Another study found that 27% of seniors in aging care services have clinically significant anxiety.

Seniors’ most common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder and specific phobias. Less common anxiety problems in older adults include obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety can occur at any stage, often reoccurring in older adults when triggered by life changes or depression. People with GAD experience excessive worry, difficulty concentrating, irritability, racing thoughts, unexplained aches or pains, and restlessness. 

Phobias

A phobia is an excessive, irrational, and often disabling fear reaction causing a sense of dread or panic. In older adults, common phobias include fear of death, disasters, dental or medical procedures, and traumatic family events. Physical symptoms include chest pains, dizziness, heart palpitations, or shortness of breath.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is characterized by frequent panic attacks—a sudden wave of fear, discomfort, or a sense of losing control. Physical symptoms can include difficulty breathing, dizziness, racing heart, sweating or chills, stomach pain or nausea, and weakness or trembling. A panic attack may not have an apparent trigger, seemingly occurring randomly.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have persistent, upsetting thoughts (obsessions). They often use rituals (compulsions) to exert a sense of control. A ritual may involve counting, checking, or repetitive actions in an attempt to decrease intrusive thoughts

Seniors with OCD may exhibit obsessive behavior to prevent thoughts of danger or harm to a loved one.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

After experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, it’s normal for people to have upsetting memories, avoidance tendencies, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, or various trauma reactions. It’s considered PTSD when the feelings persist weeks or months after the event.

PTSD is more common in aging adults as they have more life experience, increasing the possibility of encountering traumatic life events. Changes occurring because of aging, such as health conditions or decreased independence, can also cause trauma.

Risk Factors & Symptoms of Anxiety

Risk factors for anxiety in older adults are multifactorial—meaning many causes often contribute to anxiety. Common risk factors include chronic medical conditions, depression, medication side effects, physical limitations, stressful life vents, and sleep problems.

The symptoms that appear depend on the type of anxiety disorder and individual response. However, general anxiety symptoms in older adults can include:

  • Changes in appetite, eating habits, or weight
  • Difficulty breathing, sweating, & nausea
  • Digestion problems & chest pain
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Eye & vision problems
  • Fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, & soreness
  • Irrational thoughts & irritability
  • Restlessness & sleep problems
  • Shakiness or a panicky feeling
  • Social withdrawal
A man comforts his mature father as they sit on a grey couch.

Reducing Anxiety in Seniors

When loved ones notice signs of anxiety or mental health concerns, it’s best to seek professional advice and care. Seniors may benefit from medications, therapy, or other treatment. In addition to professional treatment, here are a few tips loved ones can use for calming anxiety.

Active Listening

Sometimes voicing concerns can be the best medicine. Loved ones should listen to their concerns and encourage them to express their fears. When seniors feel like they’ve been heard and their feelings are acknowledged, it can help them feel supported. Remind seniors that asking for help isn’t weakness; it’s brave and a sign of trust.

When seniors have specific concerns, you may share facts from reputable resources. For example, suppose they’re worried about an illness or a dental procedure. Seeing research or reading answers to frequently asked questions can help them feel less anxious. 

Encouraging Social Connections

Social isolation and loneliness in seniors increase multiple health risks, including anxiety and depression. Encouraging socializing and activities can help them focus on things they enjoy rather than dwelling on negative thoughts.

Establishing a Routine

Following a routine can help seniors feel in control. It can also help reduce symptoms related to cognitive conditions. For example, seniors with Alzheimer’s often experience difficulty settling down at night (sundown syndrome). Sticking to a consistent schedule can make settling down in the evening easier.

Familiar activities, scheduled meal times, and repeated events give seniors something to rely on, reducing anxiety.

Exercise

Physical activity has multiple health benefits, including reducing feelings of anxiety and stress. Exercise can help release tension and worry, decreasing the intensity and frequency of panic attacks. Additionally, activity can distract seniors from negative thoughts and reduce stress hormones (cortisol) to improve mood.

Joining a team or class is also an opportunity to build a social support network. 

Meditation & Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness or meditation can help reduce anxiety. Guided exercises, doodling, going for a leisurely walk, listening to music, and gardening are all simple tasks that encourage you to focus on the moment—not linger on negative or compulsive thoughts.

Seniors can participate in their favorite hobbies or enjoy a focusing activity with a companion. Loved ones may introduce seniors to a medication class or join them for a relaxing activity to encourage mindfulness.

Engaging a Support System

Seniors need a support system they can trust. They deserve access to mental health resources and a caring community where they feel safe. At Parsons House Frisco, we take pride in our exceptional standard of care. We’re dedicated to providing our residents with the resources they need to thrive.

We want to celebrate our residents and encourage activities that promote physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Contact usor book a tour to get to know us!

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