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Tips to Help Mom or Dad Manage Stress and Anxiety

By: Clare Absher RN, BSN

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I recently and un-expectedly discovered that my elderly mother suffers with anxiety. I was sorry to learn about her anxiety as this was not something she had experienced in the past. My siblings and I lightheartedly remark from time to time that we thought our late father was the "worry wart" parent in the family. We also joke with my mom on occasion that we unintentionally provide her with plenty of "worry material". When asked seriously about her anxiety she admits that it began soon after her husband and our father passed away. She acknowledges that the drastic change in her life causing her to "be alone" seemingly brought about the anxiety.

I have since learned through some of my own research that anxiety in the elderly is actually quite common. Some experts believe that physical health issues often overshadow anxiety and many emotional problems go unreported. Aging and anxiety are not mutually exclusive and anxiety is as common among the old as among the young according to a number of experts. Depression is all too common among the elderly also and frequently accompanies anxiety or often is the underlying cause.

Recognizing there may be valid reasons for your parent's anxiety will allow you to help them to better understand. Loss of spouses, family members and friends passing away, health problems, loss of independence are certainly well-founded sources for anxiety. You might be surprised to learn that fear of falling is a universal source of anxiety for elderly folks. Therefore in addition to strict adherence to fall precautions it is necessary to deal with the related anxiety that this fear brings about.

Learning things you can do to help a parent get through stressful situations that arise will enable he or she to feel more calm and in control. Praising a parent for any success regardless of how small is extremely important. Following my mother's hip surgery last month we reflect often on her rehab progress but likewise any effort to cope with anxiety is equally deserving of praise. Encourage mom and dad to be independent and to be involved in the decision making process whenever practical. Self-dialogue otherwise known as talking to one self to tackle an anxious time is very helpful for many folks. My mother found that through deep breathing she is able to reduce anxiety by understanding that the feeling is temporary and it will pass. Numerous programs teach the old and young alike the value of attacking their anxiety through deep breathing exercises and inner-dialogue.

My mother spends a great deal of time worrying about what might happen next. Try not to get caught up in the "what ifs" and not to feel guilty about what you cannot change. Giving your parents permission, acceptance, and reassurance in anxious situations will help them to cope better with misguided guilt. Valid external anxiety triggers cannot be avoided but learning new ways to reduce a sense of guilt about them can be adopted.

A lot of research finds that smiling and laughter are vital to reducing stress. Most of us are drawn to happy people and parents are no exception. Leading a socially involved life can be a very effective at attacking anxiety through distraction that comes with enjoying others. Help your parent tap into the local senior center where there are a wealth of social activities including trips, arts and crafts, games, holiday celebrations and guest speakers. Volunteering to help another person or a charitable organization as my devoted mother has done for years provides a feeling of overall well-being. I admiringly witness the sense of being needed and fellowship for a common cause that volunteering gives my mother as it can offer many seniors.

Watch your parent's intake of caffeine and alcohol as stimulants or depressants can negatively impact your parent by causing anxiety and depression. Review medications with your parent's physician to avoid possible contributing adverse effects to general well-being. Encourage your parent to begin a regular exercise program as the endorphins released are well-known to reduce tension and stress. Daily walks, senior water aerobics, and even tai chi are some of my mom's favorite activities. Emphasize the importance of sound nutrition and adequate sleep to combat symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Keep in mind that positive people bring positives into their lives. Folks with optimistic views of life will ultimately feel happy. Point out the positives with your loved one, give encouragement, and praise. Recognize the benefit of distraction that enjoyment of others and helping others in need can contribute to your parent's happiness. Reinforce healthy lifestyle choices and adapting coping skills such as deep breathing to allay anxiety. Respect, accept, and encourage independence with your elderly parent in order to help him or her feel in-control will lead to contentment.