November 18, 2020

Anxiety: the Real Reason Mom Won’t Leave the House

Elderly woman gazes out the window of her home.
If you’ve noticed Mom doesn’t leave the house much anymore, you may rightfully be concerned – especially if she’s not accomplishing essential tasks like grocery shopping. But if you question her, she might say she simply feels “too tired” to go out, or that she “doesn’t like to drive too much” anymore.

Those excuses might cover up the real reason Mom (or Dad) won’t leave the house: anxiety.

Anxiety is a common illness among older adults, affecting as many as 10-20 percent of the older population, though it often goes undiagnosed, according to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation (GMHF). Anxiety also may be viewed as a “normal part of aging,” but that is incorrect. Many people age without the persistent feelings of fear, worry, apprehension or dread that accompany an anxiety disorder.

Signs that Mom or Dad Might be Experiencing an Anxiety Disorder

With an anxiety disorder, the feelings of fear and dread are disproportionate to the actual situation at hand. These feelings also are persistent: they haunt the person at all times.


The most common signs of an anxiety disorder, according to the GMHF:


  • Chronic, excessive worry or fear – or panic attacks
  • Preoccupation with routine or refusing to adhere to a daily routine
  • Refusing to do routine activities or being overly preoccupied with routine
  • Declining invitations and generally avoiding social situations
  • Expressing a high level of concern about safety
  • Physical signs like a racing heartbeat, shallow breathing, sweating, nausea or even trembling
  • Disrupted or poor sleep
  • Feeling weak or shaky
  • Engaging in hoarding behavior or excessively “collecting” objects
  • Feeling depressed
  • Drinking too much



Why People Develop Anxiety Disorders

Aging can make a person feel vulnerable, which can provoke anxiety, and medical conditions or personal experiences also can cause an anxiety disorder. A few things that can contribute to developing an anxiety disorder include:

  • Experiencing a stressful event or trauma, such as a home burglary or car accident
  • Receiving a serious health diagnosis, such as cancer
  • Losing a spouse (bereavement) or other close loved one
  • Experiencing complicated grief
  • A family history of anxiety disorders
  • Other medical or mental health conditions
  • Neurodegenerative disorders (like Alzheimer’s or other dementias)

Common aging issues, such as poor health, memory issues and cognitive decline, also can trigger anxiety, along with common fears like being left alone.


Could Depression also be Involved?

For older adults, depression often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety. Either of these conditions can be debilitating, and both of them can reduce an older adult’s quality of life and overall health.

If you suspect an aging loved one might be experiencing anxiety or depression, you should speak with the person’s physician. These conditions deserve an official diagnosis, and both anxiety and depression often can be successfully treated with medications.

Common signs of depression that might accompany anxiety include:


  • Disrupted sleep, resulting in too little sleep
  • Sleeping too much
  • Eating too little or too much
  • Experiencing more physical aches and pains
  • Loss of energy
  • Feeling unmotivated to accomplish even the routine activities of daily living
  • Irritability and intolerance
  • Loss of interest in daily life
  • Loss of pleasure in recreational activities or hobbies
  • Noticeable restlessness or slow movement
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
  • Loss of sex drive or becoming hypersexual

It’s important to note that everyone experiences low mood and other signs of depression from time to time. With clinical depression, these signs and symptoms persist for weeks and months on end.


How You Can Help Mom with Anxiety or Depression

If you believe an aging loved one has developed an anxiety disorder or depression, encourage them to talk to their doctor about their feelings. Their doctor can rule out potential medical causes of their symptoms, such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease and other common health conditions.

Companionship may also go a long way toward decreasing feelings of isolation and loneliness, which could contribute to anxiety, according to Home Instead® Chief Executive Officer Jeff Huber. “Seniors who are living alone may be more vulnerable to the risks of anxiety. Just knowing someone is coming to the home, whether it’s a family member or professional caregiver, can provide a senior with reassurance that they are safe and secure, which could go a long way toward preventing anxiety.”



Other things you can do to help Mom or another aging loved one cope with feelings of anxiety or depression include:

  • Acknowledging their worries and helping them address the realistic ones. For instance, if Mom is concerned about her financial situation, then offer to look over her finances or make an appointment with a financial planner.
  • Encouraging Mom to talk with a trusted family member, friend or spiritual leader about their feelings.
  • Offering to teach them meditation or deep breathing techniques to alleviate anxiety.
  • Suggest exercising together. Research supports the idea that exercise works as well as antidepressant medications in alleviating mild to moderate depression in some people.
  • Encouraging them to get help for self-medicating with alcohol or other substances.
  • Discouraging the use of caffeine and nicotine, as these substances can trigger anxiety.

Aging can be a scary time for some people, and offering your warm, compassionate help can go a long way toward alleviating anxiety and depression. When you help Mom cope better with feelings of anxiety, you help her get out of the house more often – and that can lead to more social engagement that staves off isolation and loneliness.