Oct 07, 2021

How to Calm an Older Adult’s Anxiety

older man being comforted by daughter

Anxiety is a common illness among older adults, affecting as many as 10-20 percent of the older population, according to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation. Older adults are likely to be affected by anxiety for a number of reasons, including different medical conditions, medication interactions or any circumstances that worsen the ability to think, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. 

For most people feeling anxious will pass quickly when they no longer sense any danger. However, a person with anxiety can find it very difficult to stop thinking and feeling that something bad is about to happen.

12 Tips to Calm Anxiety in Older Adults

For caregivers helping to manage an aging loved one’s anxiety, it can be stressful to find ways to calm them. Having an array of tools to pull from can be helpful. We’ve compiled some tips from professional and family caregivers.

1. Listen to music
Music is a powerful tool for mood regulation and stress. Studies have shown that listening to classical music can improve sleep quality and decrease depression. Many caregivers find that, if it’s meaningful to them, playing familiar spiritual music can have a calming effect on their aging loved ones. For another caregiver, her aging loved one calms to the sound of bagpipes, a familiar sound from childhood.

2. Pray
Caregivers who support aging loved ones who value faith find that praying together is a powerful calming tool. One study compared secular and spiritual forms of meditation and found that the group that practiced spiritual meditation showed greater decreases in anxiety and stress and a more positive mood.

3. Exercise
Scientists have found about five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects. So, whether it’s taking a walk, dancing to music or simply stretching, physical activity is an effective tool to calm anxiety.

4. Walk outside
When an older adult is feeling anxious, get outside to breathe in the fresh air. One study in the journal Health & Place, showed that older adults who spent time in blue and green outdoor areas, such as grassy parks or on the edge of koi ponds, enjoyed increased feelings of renewal, restoration and spiritual connectedness. Even relatively mundane experiences, hearing a bee buzzing or the sound of water, had a tremendous impact on overall health.

5. Share something familiar
Caregivers find that sharing beloved books or movies from the past can help to calm anxiety. Many find reading favorite children’s books or reciting nursery rhymes especially helpful.

6. Share a treat or favorite food
One caregiver says “ice cream works like a charm” when her aging loved one is feeling anxious. Another says that chocolate pudding is a must-have in times of stress. Don’t forget the comfort a warm bowl of chicken noodle soup can bring.

7. Spend time with a pet
Pets can lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce the stress hormone cortisol and increase the body’s natural mood booster, serotonin, in their owners. Even if it is not with their own pet, studies have shown the therapeutic effects for older adults who interact with animals.

8. Go for a drive
Whether it’s the change of scenery or the lull of the engine, caregivers find that going for a drive can have calming effects on older adults who feel anxious.

9. Offer a security object
Oftentimes, caregivers find that a special object can calm anxiety. One caregiver says that for her mother, that special object is a baby doll that she can hold and reminds her of the grandchildren that she used to care for. For another, that special object is a warm blanket.

10. Share memories
Recalling memories of happy times—whether looking through saved greeting cards, letters or older photo albums—can have a calming effect on older adults. Talking about positive childhood memories can be helpful too.

11. Promote physical contact
Human touch is a powerful thing. Remember that a hug, a hand massage or brushing your loved one’s hair can go a long way. As we all continue to navigate the global pandemic, just be sure that you do so safely and follow your local public health guidelines.

12. Have a conversation
The type of conversation can vary and will depend on the level of anxiety in place. It could be a fun chit chat or a few jokes to help crack a smile. Or, it could be a more direct discussion recounting facts, providing information. Regardless of the conversation, the goal is to make the older adult feel safe, loved and reassured that he or she doesn’t need to worry.

Find additional calming strategies, especially for those living with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, in this video: Coping with Agitation and Aggression.

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