Understanding anxiety in the elderly
What is geriatric anxiety?
Geriatric anxiety refers to anxiety disorders among the elderly. Anxiety among the elderly is similar to that in the younger population — the person feels worry, fear or doubt. However, it occurs with higher intensity and often, along with other physical and mental illnesses. Anxiety is common among the elderly but is generally overlooked as a sign of aging. Having a physical illness drastically increases the risk of geriatric anxiety.
What are the symptoms of geriatric anxiety?
Many factors can cause anxiety among the elderly. Anxious feelings displayed by the elderly are often disregarded as age-related reactions; that is, their worries are often seen as a signs of aging rather than a source of distress. This is detrimental, as the illness can remain undiagnosed and cause further distress.
Some symptoms are similar to those of other anxiety disorders like a feeling of dread or doom, chest pain, and breathlessness. Along with these, some characteristic features of geriatric anxiety are:
Constant fear about their family’s well being – resulting in multiple phone calls checking on others’ whereabouts
Unwillingness to take part in regular activities like walking – owing to the fear of falling or getting injured
Being wary of unknown people accessing their homes and other heightened fears like burglary
Fear of abandonment
Excessive worry about illnesses
Unwillingness to leave their homes
Heightened levels of anxiety following the death of a spouse or loved one
Prolonged feelings of loneliness
Elderly people with physical illnesses like diabetes and hypertension are more likely to have geriatric anxiety.
What is the treatment for geriatric anxiety?
It is important to detect early signs of geriatric anxiety to help manage the symptoms better. This can be done by regular physical and neurological check-ups.
The recommended form of treatment for geriatric anxiety is formalized psychotherapy and medication. Therapy helps them address causes of distress and anxiety, while medication aids in alleviating the symptoms.
In addition to these, yoga and other specific relaxation techniques may be recommended to help regulate the autonomic nervous system. Social support, a structured routine, exercise, and care are essential in helping the elderly cope with geriatric anxiety.
How to care for someone with geriatric anxiety?
It is important for the caregiver to closely notice any change in behavior displayed by the elderly person in their care. Subtle changes like rising fear, suspicion, dread, and loss of interest in regular activities can be early signs of anxiety. It’s important to create an environment where the elderly person is encouraged to express any physical discomfort they might be feeling. This is vital, as an inability to express themselves may contribute to further anxiety.
If a health checkup reveals any neurological decline, the caregiver must take immediate steps to modify daily activities to alter the elderly person’s schedule and routine to address their neurological needs. This could mean making changes to the person’s physical environment to address their safety, and/or having extra support available to them. Explaining the care process to the elderly, including introducing them to any care providers involved will help them adjust and accept changes.
If an elderly person is resistant to care, the caregiver must find ways to encourage them to continue treatment. They could adopt ways of convincing them to seek help, including telling them that it is being done for the peace of mind of the family.
A caregiver’s key role is to create protective factors around the elderly person with anxiety to ensure they can cope with their situation and lead a fulfilled life.
With inputs from Dr Mathew Varghese, psychiatrist at NIMHANS and neuropsychologist, Tanvi Mallya.