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When to Worry About Worrying: Identifying and Treating Anxiety Disorders

“Dad, don’t you want to come along to Jacob’s Little League game?” asked Peggy.

Dad replied slowly, “No…I worry he will be hit with the ball when he is batting. And with all this rain, the roads seem very treacherous."

That’s not like Dad at all, Peggy thought to herself. He is usually Jacob's biggest fan in the stands! But lately, Dad hasn’t wanted to go out much. He seems preoccupied with every small ache and pain, and he only wants to talk about bad news he sees on the nightly news.

Worried man on the couch

We all worry from time to time. Worrying is normal. It motivates us to think through problems and develop solutions.

But sometimes worrying seems to take over a person’s life. If a senior loved one seems to worry excessively, so much so that it affects daily tasks and relationships, he or she may have an anxiety disorder.

Seniors are at high risk for clinical anxiety disorders, which may be related to stress and trauma, grief and loss, alcohol or prescription drugs, or other health conditions such as heart disease, dementia or depression. According to the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, up to 20% of older adults are dealing with some form of this condition.

How can family tell if there’s a problem? Be alert to the signs of clinical anxiety disorder, which might include:

  • Exaggerated worry and fear;
  • Increased self-consciousness;
  • Withdrawal from social interactions;
  • Shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat and lightheadedness;
  • Increased muscle tension or shaking;
  • Problems falling asleep or staying asleep; and,
  • Self-medication with alcohol or other substances.

If you notice these signs, encourage your loved one to be evaluated by his healthcare provider. Anxiety disorders are very treatable. Treatment might include psychotherapy, relaxation training, medication, support groups, and beneficial lifestyle changes. Most seniors benefit from a combination of approaches.

According to Dr. Peter Rabins, author of Getting Old Without Getting Anxious, the best outcome results from teamwork between seniors, healthcare providers, and family members. Raban recommends that family learn all they can about their loved one’s condition, and provide support and encouragement as their loved one seeks treatment.

But the practical care tasks, doctor appointments, and other support challenges can create stress for family members who already have full schedules from work and family responsibilities. This could even translate into increased worrying for their loved one, who might fear “becoming a burden.”

Home Care Supports Recovery

For these families, home care can be a great resource. More and more families choose in-home care to support independent living for loved ones who need help with activities of daily living and household tasks. For seniors who are experiencing an anxiety disorder, a professional in-home caregiver can:

Transport your loved one to healthcare appointments. Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from cognitive or behavioral therapy, provided by a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or other healthcare provider. Patients may see several providers, especially in the beginning of treatment. But managing appointments can challenge a patient who is already overwhelmed with worry, and for a family member who needs to provide transportation. An in-home caregiver is a reassuring presence, making sure your loved one keeps track of appointments and makes it to appointments on time.

Help with medication management. Several types of medications are prescribed to treat anxiety disorders. Finding the right drugs and the right dose may include a little "trial and error" period. It is very important to take medications exactly as directed, and to be watchful for side effects, especially during the adjustment period. The in-home caregiver can pick up prescriptions or take your loved one to the pharmacy; provide medication reminders; and report common side effects such as confusion, sleep problems or dizziness.

Encourage socialization. Loneliness and anxiety often go hand in hand. Human companionship is a great anxiety reducer. But sometimes, anxiety itself causes us to avoid social situations, and a cycle of isolation begins. An in-home caregiver not only provides companionship for your loved one, but can also help your loved one visit with friends, attend support group meetings, enjoy activities at the local senior center, participate in faith community events, or other pastimes your loved one enjoys.

Support other beneficial lifestyle changes. Your loved one’s healthcare provider will probably "prescribe" increased physical activity, which is one of the greatest mood support choices we can make. Relaxation-promoting classes and activities such as yoga or tai chi are also often recommended.

Reduce the concern of family caregivers. One family caregiver describes the cycle: “My mom worries, I worry about Mom worrying, and that makes Mom worry all the more!” When the in-home caregiver takes over practical tasks and care supervision, full-time or for a few hours a week, this provides peace of mind for the whole family, allowing them to spend their time together doing things they enjoy.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous quote, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," could apply to anxiety disorders. Breaking the cycle may take some time and effort. But the results mean a huge quality of life improvement for seniors and family alike.

Learn More

For more information on diagnosing, classifying, and treating senior anxiety disorders, visit the websites of the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation and the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

Depression may occur along with anxiety. To learn how in-home care supports seniors who are experiencing depression, see “Depression and Seniors: Home Care Can Help in the October 2009 issue of Caring Right at Home.

This article is not meant to replace the advice of your doctor. If you or a loved one is experiencing persistent anxiety, please speak to your healthcare provider.

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Right at Home is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned, franchised providers of in-home care and assistance services.


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