You’re visiting your mother again, or your aunt, or your father, or maybe your older neighbor: “My head aches,” they might tell you. “I can’t sleep.” You might have one these reactions:
Reaction One: Generalize. Aches and pains, unfortunately, are part of getting old. Maybe you find them some medicine to help with their pain.
Reaction Two: Socialize. Maybe they just need to get out and socialize in order to sleep better. Exercise and socializing can help with so many aspects of physical health.
Both of these reactions are well-intentioned. The thing is, these pains your loved one complains about might not be isolated aches and pains or a normal part of growing older, or a result of too little exercise. They could actually be symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are twice as common in older adults as any type of dementia, and four to eight times more common than major depressive disorder.
What Does an Anxiety Disorder Look Like?
Anxiety disorders manifest a little differently in older adults than they do in younger people. Anxiety in elderly people often appears with physical symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, headaches, or digestive distress. In any given year, about 10% of adults aged 65 and older have a diagnosable anxiety disorder. But that doesn’t mean that 10% of adults aged 65 and older actually receive a diagnosis. Many people are unsure what an anxiety disorder really looks like, or that there are multiple types, so they don’t think to take their loved one to the doctor for a diagnosis.
The Big Six
There are actually six different anxiety disorders. You’ll likely have heard of a few of them, and any of them can have the physical symptoms mentioned above.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is the most common anxiety diagnosis in older adults. It may also be the one most easily overlooked as simple worry because there is no specific situation or event that causes the anxiety. With GAD, an older adult may become extremely or unnecessarily concerned about health, money, family problems, and other aspects of their life. A diagnosis usually occurs when this panic or worry becomes detrimental to the senior’s physical or mental health.
If your loved one suddenly stops wanting to go and meet friends, or leave the house to run errands, they may have developed a social phobia. This phobia usually centers around a fear of judgement or embarrassment rather than a fear that something catastrophic will happen.
Someone with panic disorder has sudden, unexplained panic attacks accompanied by a fear of impending crisis and a sense of disconnectedness from reality.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
We most often hear about PTSD in veterans, but it can also affect any individual who has lived through an act of violence or a terrifying experience. Sometimes witnessing such an event, even if not directly involved, is enough to cause psychological damage that can resurface in older age.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
One of the more well-known anxiety disorders because of its often extreme symptoms, OCD can be debilitating for older adults. Some individuals with OCD also exhibit hoarding behavior, which can lead to both health problems and social issues.
Individuals with specific phobias have extreme fears of things that pose little to no threat. These might be certain common animals, types of transportation, or enclosed spaces. Encountering a scenario involving the fear may trigger intense panic attacks. If your loved one has this type of anxiety disorder, it’s likely you have always known their phobia, but it may have worsened with age.
How to Get Help
Medical treatment can prove difficult for elderly individuals diagnosed with anxiety disorders, given that many already take medications that could mix poorly with the anxiety medication. When diagnosed with anxiety, elderly individuals often participate in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and sometimes use a combination of medication and therapy.
Have you had a loved one who showed symptoms of an anxiety disorder? How did you help them? Share your stories below.