In some cases, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. It's our body's way coping. But when anxiety becomes an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it crosses the line to become a disabling disorder. Anxiety is not a normal part of aging.
People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can't control their worries and can't relax. They may be easily startled, and have trouble falling or staying asleep.
Anxiety disorders among older adults frequently occur at the same time as other illnesses such as depression, diabetes and heart disease. Problems with cognition and changes in life circumstances can also complicate matters.
Anxiety that strikes later in life happens more to females than males. People with late-life anxiety tend to have chronic medical conditions. Having depression also increases your risk for an anxiety disorder. The side effects of medication can cause anxiety. For all of these reasons, it can be difficult to accurately diagnose an anxiety disorder in older adults.
People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have persistent, upsetting thoughts (obsessions) and use rituals (compulsions) to control the anxiety these thoughts produce.
Most of the time the rituals end up controlling them. For example, if people are obsessed with germs or dirt, they may develop a compulsion to wash their hands over and over again. If they develop an obsession with intruders, they may lock and relock their doors many times before going to bed. Being afraid of social embarrassment may prompt people with OCD to comb their hair compulsively in front of a mirror, getting "caught" in the mirror, unable to move away from it.
Performing such rituals is not pleasurable. At best, it produces temporary relief from the anxiety created by obsessive thoughts. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is typically an anxiety disorder, but when an elderly person suffers from it, the condition could be related to Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
Compulsive hoarding, the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them, is another disorder that is associated with anxiety and OCD. Hoarding often creates such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter.
People who tend to hoard frequently identify their possessions as central to their identities. Losing or disposing of a possession may produce extreme anxiety or a sense of loss and grief.
There is research that suggests pre-Alzheimer's personality may trigger hoarding behavior.
Someone who was already prone to experiencing anxiety, when faced with aging and the possibility of outliving their resources, may begin to collect and save against the onslaught of feeling overwhelmed by what lies ahead.
Many times hoarding demonstrates a need for comfort because of the deep fears and anxiety the sufferer experienced. Others will hold on to items because they fear their memories will be lost without that tangible evidence of the past.
Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
The research on treating anxiety disorders in older adults is limited. However, most disorders can be treated with medication or psychotherapy. For some people, a combination of medication and psychotherapy may be the best treatment approach.
Antidepressants are increasingly recommended to treat anxiety disorders in older adults.
Psychotherapy involves talking with a trained mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or counselor, to discover what caused the anxiety disorder and how to deal with it.
A type of psychotherapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is very useful in treating anxiety disorders. The cognitive part helps people change the thinking patterns that support their fears, and the behavioral part helps people change the way they react to anxiety-provoking situations.