Anyone whose elderly parent suffers from fear and anxiety knows that it can be extremely challenging.
Unfortunately increasing fear and anxiety is all too common in seniors who feel isolated due to the loss of loved ones, their children moving away or increasing frailty and illness. If your parent lives alone or feels alone within a long-standing marriage, these feelings may be exacerbated.
Parents may be afraid of falling, of meeting new people, of change of any kind, of illness, accidents or death.
As a result, your parent may have trouble turning off their anxious thoughts at bedtime, resulting in insomnia. This problem may be worsened by the anxiety or anti-depression medications they’ve been prescribed. Sometimes even sleeping medications can contribute to insomnia and you can never ignore the influence of other meds they are taking.
A chronically sleep-deprived senior, like anyone who lacks regular rest, may over-react. They may become even more anxious, fearful or even depressed when faced with everyday challenges and setbacks. The may feel that their troubles are multiplying when what they are experiencing is an isolated incident.
The chicken or the egg?
To the adult caregiver the source of their parent’s problems may be difficult to determine. Did the anxiety cause the sleeplessness or did the sleeplessness cause the anxiety? Did the meds cause the insomnia or did the insomnia interfere with the ability of the meds to do their job? And what was mom or dad upset about in the first place? And how can the adult child unwind it all and start to help?
We don’t speak about mental problems
Many seniors come from a generation where people didn’t speak about mental challenges of any kind much less visit a psychologist or psychiatrist to discuss them. This means that you will be lucky to get your parent to see a therapist and even luckier if they continue to go.
If your aging parent prefers to ask you for advice you may suggest ways to cope, to create new habits of thought and undo old ones and then patiently walk your parent through the steps necessary to make these changes. This may go well at first. They may even thank you profusely but you may find yourself repeating the process all over again when you receive the next distress call.
It is very hard to help someone who seems almost addicted to going over the same sad details (some of them decades old) endlessly. Their parents’ behaviour may even seem narcissistic to the adult children who can’t imagine why anyone would want to continue this way unless it filled their need to be the centre of attention. Is this some unconscious way your lonely mom or dad has of getting your attention?
Guilt and resentment
Sandwich generation caregivers often fight feelings of guilt and resentment because their parent keeps stressing over the same things or rehashing ancient events and no amount of calm, measured coaching or tender hand-holding seems to help.
What can adult children do to help their parents?
- Bring in the family doctor to find out what the problem is and to prescribe and monitor treatments. Make sure you know what meds have been prescribed and their potential side effects when added to the current medications your parent is taking.
- Ask the doctor to recommend a geriatric assessment for your parent to ensure there is no neurological issue such as dementia or Alzheimer’s causing their distress.
- Set up a therapist appointment to train your parent in cognitive behavioural therapy so they can begin to undo their habits of worry, fear and anxiety.
- If your parent is lonely or if they don’t get along with their spouse but feel they have no way to leave the house and get a break, ask the local CCAC to suggest someone who can take them to senior-friendly social events or fitness activities.
- If the problem is your parent’s unhappy marriage it is never too late to suggest counseling to help them find ways to live together more amicably.
- If your parent is too shy to go out and meet ‘strangers’ see if there is anyone they know that could take them on a local outing once a week.
- Schedule regular in-person or phone visits with your parent and contact your local Community Care Access Centre (CCAC) to arrange for someone to come and visit them for a few hours each week.
- Bring in an elder care coach to sit with the family and discuss options. With an objective third party involved you can be more candid about the issues and the toll the stress is taking on the adult children.
- Investigate retirement communities and try to arrange for your parent to enjoy a trial stay. If finances permit and there are insurmountable problems between the parents, having one parent move to a retirement community may be a good way to improve their quality of life and decreases much of their stress.
- Suggest ways your parent can volunteer in the community to take their mind off their own troubles and help put things into perspective.
What can adult children do to help themselves?
- Prioritize your own health: There is no reason to put yourself last. It is all about balance between your needs and those of your elderly parent.
- Never underestimate the insidious power of stress: Watch for signs of stress including short temper, chest pains or inability to focus on your work or home life.
- See a doctor: If you experience any new physical or emotional symptoms seek out the help of your doctor to rule out any serious medical issues.
- Forgive yourself: Realize that feeling resentful or angry is quite normal when you are dealing with a chronic stress such as your parent’s increasing fears and anxieties.
- Learn to de-stress: Learn meditation or another method of stress reduction, see friends regularly, make time for exercise and activities you enjoy so that your own health won’t be compromised further.
Are you trying to help an elderly parent who is increasingly anxious or fearful? How do you cope? Share your tips in the comments section below.