What to do about stress in older adults
Stress is a common emotion. We all have to deal with stress at various times in our lives. The pressures of work, raising a family, keeping up with the cost of living, and relationship issues can all raise our stress levels. But what about the elderly? Do they experience high levels of stress? What are the causes of stress in older adults? What is the right response?
Many people believe that as we get older, our stress levels decrease. In fact, some studies have shown that when faced with stressful situations (for example, the COVID-19 pandemic), elderly people can often be much more resilient than younger people.1
But getting older doesn’t mean that your life will be free of stress. While older people are often able to make peace with many aspects of their lives, they also face unique challenges. The elderly face a range of mental and physical health risks that can raise their stress levels.
In this article, we’ll look at the symptoms of stress, risk factors and the health implications for older adults and lay out some coping strategies.
Are Feelings of Stress Common in Elderly People?
We tend to envision the later years of our lives as a time when we can let go of stress and enjoy life. Older people do tend to have better coping skills than younger people when faced with stressful events. This is because they have much more experience with dealing with a range of stressful situations. Older people are also better at regulating their emotions and taking more measured decisions.2 Feelings of stress, however, do not disappear altogether as we age. Women and men are both equally at risk of age-related stress.
A study commissioned by the UK government and conducted by Age UK showed that almost half of all older men and women surveyed were struggling with mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression.3 This research data also reported that one in five older adults said that their stress, anxiety, and depression had worsened as they aged. On a global scale, one study found that 15% of the older population experience mental health issues. The data showed that 10 to 55% of the older population have elevated levels of stress.4
Large amounts of research have not been conducted into the stress levels of elderly people. The research that has been done has covered older participants from various countries and social communities across the world. 5,6,7,8 Cultural differences or differences in wealth do make an impact on stress levels, but no more than they do on people of all ages.
So, while more study is needed in this area, it is clear many older adults do experience high levels of stress. But what are the main causes of stress associated with ageing?
The Common Causes of Stress in Older Adults
The ways that we experience stress in our lives change as we get older. Elderly people must deal with a range of stressful situations and issues that are unique to their social position in life. Many elderly people are retired and no longer need to worry about raising their children or problems with work. Despite this, there are still many factors that can impact the physical and mental health of older adults.
Bereavement and Loss of Loved Ones
It’s inevitable that as we age, we will have to cope with the loss of our loved ones. Unfortunately, having accumulated years of life experience do not make it any easier to deal with losing those closest to us. Living with grief can be hard at any age. The death of a life partner, a close friend, or a beloved pet can be especially psychologically devastating to an elderly person.
Decreased Physical Ability
Another unavoidable consequence of ageing is a decrease in our ability to move as we once did. For many older adults, not being as strong or as flexible as they once were, can result in feelings of frustration and stress. This is true for all older people, not just those who were physically fit in their youth.
Loss of Cognitive Awareness
Declining mental abilities caused by illnesses such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease are incredibly stressful for older people. Not being able to recall past events or the names of loved ones, forgetting how to perform basic life tasks, and losing social skills is exceedingly distressing. The gradual loss of cognitive abilities is traumatic and stressful for both the ageing person in question and those close to them.
Changes in Relationships
Older adults often find that their relationships with their friends, their children, and even their spouses change significantly as the years pass. Spouses may grow apart, friends may be moved from the area or die, and adult children may have responsibilities of their own to deal with. These social changes can be very stressful for elderly people.
Unfortunately, worrying about money doesn’t necessarily stop when we reach retirement. The cost of care and medications can be significant. A large majority of older adults must make do with fixed incomes or rely on government subsidies. The loss of the ability to earn money can also be a cause of stress.
Ageing bodies are less able to fight off disease, inflammation, and infection. Elderly people are much more prone to developing serious illnesses and chronic ailments than younger people. Coping with these conditions and even just worrying about them are major stressors for older adults.
Loneliness and Isolation
Feelings of being left behind, being cut off from the world, and being alone are very common among the elderly. Adult children spend more time with their own lives and partners and friends pass away, move, or become ill. Chronic mobility issues, psychological problems, or illness stop the elderly from being able to interact with others as they would usually. All these factors can cause older adults to experience feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Loss of Independence
Physical illness and cognitive issues mean that many older adults cannot care for themselves properly. Ageing people often experience high levels of stress associated with being reliant upon others and having decreased independence.
Lack of Purpose
Older adults that can’t work, don’t need to care for their own children, or have lost their place in a community can feel that they are unwanted, unnecessary, and obsolete. A lack of purpose in life is associated with feelings of frustration, anger, and stress.
The Health Impacts of Stress on Elderly People
Low levels of stress are manageable and can even have positive effects on our physical and mental health. Too much stress, however, can cause a broad range of negative impacts on our health.
When we experience stress, the body’s response is to release a hormone called cortisol. While cortisol is essential for our bodies, too much cortisol is detrimental to our health. Keeping stress levels low is vital for maintaining good cortisol levels in the body.
Younger people may have the strength to adequately deal with the health effects of stress. For seniors, too much stress can impact their physical and mental health. The effects of stress include conditions such as:
- Frequent headaches
- Muscle pain
- Digestive issues
- Dental problems
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk of stroke
- Weakened immune system
How to Tell if an Older Person is Stressed
Being aware of the symptoms of stress in older people is the first step to developing an effective response.
Common elderly anxiety symptoms and symptoms of stress in older adults include:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Inability to concentrate
- Memory problems
- Sleep issues
- Lack of energy
- Bad personal hygiene
- Being withdrawn
Effective Techniques for Stress Management for Seniors
Many seniors come from a generation where anxiety, stress, and other mental health issues were not adequately treated. They may not have coping strategies or know what the best response to these feelings is.
For older adults to effectively manage stress and anxiety, they need to first acknowledge that these emotions are a normal part of life. Dealing with the problems associated with the passing of time is something that everyone must contend with.
Stress-relieving strategies include staying
Using Lactium® products is a great way for older people to lower their stress. Lactium® is a natural hydrolysed milk protein that provides stress relief. With no side effects, Lactium® has been clinically proven to reduce stress.
More research and study are required to effectively evaluate the true impact of stress on seniors. We do know that high levels of stress can cause serious mental and physical health issues for the elderly. With the right care and support, older people can reduce risk factors, develop effective coping strategies and build resilience to stress. In some cases, medication may be required to help an elderly person deal with stress.