Contrary to popular belief, anxiety in the elderly is more than just the occasion struggle with worry. It is a serious medical condition with far-reaching consequences.[1.“Long-Term Effects of Anxiety,” July 24, 2015, https://www.livestrong.com/article/222371-long-term-effects-of-anxiety/] Anxiety disorders can range from mild to severe, with the worst ones causing significant interference in functioning. Anxiety can occur on its own, or in combination with other disorders, including depression and addictive illnesses.
Regardless of the type of anxiety or its co-occurring conditions, if an older adult is suffering from this disorder, immediate treatment is paramount. And perhaps no one in your loved one’s life is better equipped to help them than their physician.
Doctors and Anxiety Treatment: What Makes Them Different?
They are sometimes the only medical professionals that older adults see
In general, no one goes to the doctor if they don’t have to, and older adults are no exception. In fact, they may end up making fewer visits per year than other age groups because of transportation issues. For instance, many no longer drive or feel safe driving. So when they finally do arrive at an appointment, they may be meeting with the only individual in their social orbit capable of identifying and diagnosing their illness.
They know mental and emotional symptoms can present as physical ones
It’s not uncommon for mental and emotional symptoms to present as a physical illness[2.“How Worrying Affects the Body,” https://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/how-worrying-affects-your-body?page=2#2], and many doctors are aware of this. Individuals with anxiety may find themselves suffering from fatigue, irritability, memory problems, digestive issues, and more. Anxiety that includes panic attacks can even manifest as shortness of breath and chest pains. The individuals may chalk it up to stress, and older adults are especially vulnerable to thinking they’re suffering from the inevitable aging process. But a savvy doctor will know to rule out all possible causes of illness before diagnosing a mental disorder.
They know anxiety is a physical illness
Too many times, those with anxiety (and on a related note, depression) are told that their condition is “all in their head.” They’re encouraged to “cheer up,” or are told that it will all go away if they ignore it. Experienced and skilled physicians know that this is patently false. Anxiety disorders often have a strong biological component, and need medical treatment just like any other physical illness.
They can create a treatment plan
Because good doctors know that anxiety is a medical issue, they also know the condition needs a treatment plan. In traditional medicine, anxiety is typically managed with a two-prong approach: therapy and prescriptions. The most frequently-used therapy falls under the heading of “cognitive-behavioral.” This means the patient’s thoughts are examined to determine how they influence any actions taken. When it comes to medication, there are dozens which have been shown to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, though they are generally recommended in combination with therapy.
Of course, it is up to your loved one (or his or her decision-maker, if they lack the ability to make their own) which course to choose. Some aren’t comfortable with the idea of talking to another person about their illness, while others may have issues taking prescriptions for it. There are also more holistic options, which should be discussed with their physician beforehand. But whichever modality your loved one picks, his or her doctor should be able to create a corresponding treatment plan tailored to their needs.
Anxiety in the Elderly Is a Treatable Condition
Your loved one does not have to suffer from panic attacks, constant worry, phobias, and more. Anxiety in the elderly is an entirely treatable condition. However, this hinges on being able to identify and confirm the disease before it becomes unmanageable. As you can see, your loved one’s physician is an important part of that. If you think that an older adult is exhibiting the symptoms of anxiety, talk to them about scheduling a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.