Got Anxiety? Helping an aging parent or loved one manage anxiety
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the second in a three-part series regarding anxiety with older adults.
Does your mom spend a lot of time worrying about what might happen next? Is your dad experiencing sudden, unexplained attacks of panic? Is your loved one refusing to leave the house?
If your parent or loved one is among the 15% of older adults diagnosed with anxiety annually, you don’t have to be a trained professional, saint or superhero to help your loved one manage anxiety.
Providing care for these family members or friends is an act of love, loyalty, and kindness. It helps to be supportive and empathic, but not overbearing and intrusive.
It is also key to realize that your role is one of support, not treatment — save that for the trained professional. There are specific and helpful ways you can care for a loved one with an anxiety disorder.
After anxiety has been diagnosed, it’s important to remember that an elderly person needs to feel safe, remain close to other people and believe that their life continues to be meaningful.
Below are several guidelines to offering support:
Educate Yourself and Your Loved One
Learn as much as possible about the type of anxiety your loved one is experiencing. This will help you understand why someone with anxiety behaves in a certain way and realize that their mood or behavior is not necessarily about you.
Separating the condition from the person also helps your loved one feel less ashamed. Anxiety is not an imaginary condition. Seniors have made it clear that it is not helpful to be told “things will get better if you just stop dwelling,” “don’t worry, be happy,” or “you’re imagining that.”
Share information about anxiety with your loved one in a way they will best understand — books, websites, visits with their doctor or other health professionals.
Encourage Treatment or Continued Treatment
Encouraging your loved one to seek help is a way of moving forward. Suggest that you seek help together to make it seem less threatening.
For resistance, ask a close friend to get involved. If your loved one is in therapy, remind her to keep appointments and help her follow her therapist’s instructions.
Research indicates the best therapy for anxiety disorders is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which involves homework and assignments. Supporting your loved one ensures this work gets done.
If your loved one is prescribed medication, provide reminder strategies to help him take medications. Get a geriatric psychiatrist involved. These professionals have special training in treating older adults.
Listen Without Judgment
Also, talk sensitively, don’t undermine, welcome humor, encourage optimism and broaden the conversation topics.
People experiencing anxiety are quick to be irritable and defensive, and get stuck in their own worry world. Be calm and gentle. Use positive language and tone. Be inspirational and uplifting without dismissing concerns.
Acknowledge worries and address fears that can be handled with a practical solution: If Dad worries about finances, take him to consult with his financial consultant.
For worries that don’t have an immediate solution, just listen while your loved one talks about issues that are bothering her and how she is feeling, while supporting and encouraging positive attitudes.
Example: Your mom worries all the time about more of her friends dying. Talk about and acknowledge her fear or sadness while encouraging her to focus on and share happy memories and times with her friends. Invite spiritual leaders and friends to be part of these communications.
Talk about more than anxiety. Be supportive, not parental. There’s a difference and older people understand that.
Encourage Daily Exercise
Also, encourage healthy meals, enough sleep, and limits on alcohol and caffeine.
Less alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and over-eating will improve anxiety symptoms. Regular exercising such as walks or water workouts releases endorphins which reduce stress. Adequate sleep combats anxiety and depression.
Urge (Don’t Pressure) Social and Emotional Connection
A strong social network with people we care about promotes good mental health. Help your loved one maintain contact with friends, family, and community.
Arrange transport to local events, services and stores. Encourage visits from younger family members. Use the telephone and electronics to maintain regular communication. Urge volunteer experiences.
Acknowledge, Validate, and Respect Independence and Success
People with optimistic views of life feel happy. Point out positives with your loved one and give encouragement.
Validating a loved one for any success regardless of how small is vital. Any effort to cope with anxiety is deserving of admiration.
Encourage independence. Support involvement in the decision making process. Call attention to new ways they are using to confront and manage anxiety.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.
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