Does Mom Seem Anxious? How to Recognize Anxiety in Older Adults

One of the greatest gifts of growing older is the emotional strength that comes with learning how to navigate life’s ups and downs. But although we may get wiser and less rattled by challenges as we age, it doesn’t make us immune to worry and fear. In fact, current medical research has shown that seniors are more likely to suffer from anxiety than depression or dementia.

Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent of all mental health conditions, with about 10 percent of those 65 and older having a diagnosable anxiety disorder. And those who have had a mental health condition like depression earlier in life are more likely to experience an anxiety disorder as a senior.

Recognizing Anxiety in Seniors 

Diagnosing a clinical anxiety disorder in an older adult can be difficult for a number of reasons. It often accompanies other mental health conditions including depression, substance abuse or misuse, or dementia. In addition, it can be hard to determine whether the senior patient is either clinically anxious or simply worried more than usual. If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may have a clinical anxiety disorder, take a look at some common signs below:

  • Changes in Eating Habits: Check for signs of weight gain or loss. Those who are anxious tend to either eat more to calm themselves down or are so worried or nervous they skip meals.
  • More Physical Ailments: Many seniors will complain first about the physical symptoms of anxiety including chest pain, racing heartbeat, dizziness and shortness of breath. While these symptoms can be signs of other, sometimes life-threatening conditions, they are also signs of a possible panic attack or high anxiety.
  • Substance Abuse: Alcohol and drug use isn’t limited to younger adults. Seniors, too, may misuse or abuse prescription drugs or drink heavily to mask fear and worry.
  • Less Socializing: Anxiety disorders can lead to isolation from family and loved ones as well as a lack of interest in activities that once brought joy. Serious anxiety issues can even lead to phobias of public places and social events.
  • Sleep Disturbances: Older adults who suffer from anxiety may sleep more to escape their constant fears or stay awake with racing thoughts and a worried mind.
From Meditation to Medication: Treating Anxiety in Older Adults 

If you or a senior loved one is experiencing any of the above symptoms, there’s good news: anxiety disorders can be treated in a variety of ways, from support from family and friends, to professional therapy, to meditation and mind/body exercises.

  • Encourage Socialization. Isolation is common for those with an anxiety disorder. Encourage them to spend time out of the home with friends and family or to take a class at a local community college or recreation center. Plan outings with them so that they can socialize more. If you live far away from a loved one with anxiety, reach out to their assisted living community, health care provider or clergy for help getting them out of the house.
  • Therapy. Psychotherapy can be very helpful in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Look for a psychologist or other mental health professional who specializes in the treatment of senior anxiety.
  • Medication. While there are a variety of medications that can effectively treat anxiety, including antidepressants and antipsychotics, extra caution should be taken when prescribing them for older adults. Some of these medications may interfere with others they are already taking.
  • Meditation. Eastern mind/body practices including meditation and gentle yoga are now widely regarded as an effective supplement to help manage anxiety and stress. Simple guided meditation and breathing techniques can calm the nervous system and offer relaxation and a sense of well-being.