Anxiety in older adults: How to identify it and support your loved one

Anxiety is one of the most common psychiatric disorders in the older population. A study on the prevalence of anxiety in older people shows that anxiety disorders are present in 14-17% of older adults, although they often go undiagnosed.

Symptoms of anxiety can include irrational and excessive worry or fear, avoidance of routine activities, racing heart, shallow breathing, and trembling. Therefore, anxiety can worsen an older adult’s physical health, decrease their ability to perform daily activities, and reduce their sense of well-being. Anxiety is common and treatable, and the earlier it is identified and addressed, the easier it is to reverse the symptoms. 

The causes of anxiety disorders are currently unknown, but there is likely to be a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological, and developmental factors. Some risk factors for developing an anxiety disorder in older adults include:

  • Chronic medical conditions
  • A general feeling of poor health
  • Sleep disorders
  • Side effects of medications
  • Physical limitations in daily activities
  • Stressful life events
  • Negative events or traumas in childhood
  • Excessive worry

Although anxiety and depression can occur separately, it is not uncommon for these them to coexist.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety in Older Adults

Anxiety symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder and the individual. However, general symptoms of an anxiety disorder often include physical symptoms such as: 

  • Cold or sweaty hands
  • Dry mouth
  • Palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Numbness
  • Muscle tension
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches 

Apart from these physical symptoms, anxiety can also cause mental symptoms such as feelings of panic or fear, nightmares, repeated thoughts or flashbacks to traumatic experiences, or obsessive thoughts. 

In older people with anxiety, some of the most common symptoms they may experience are: 

  • Irrational and excessive worry or fear
  • Checking and rechecking for safety
  • Avoidance of routine activities or social situations
  • Avoidance of anxiety-provoking objects or situations
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Being easily frightened
  • An urge to perform certain rituals in an attempt to alleviate anxiety

Identifying The Signs Of Anxiety In A Loved One

Paying attention to your older loved one’s mental health is important, especially if they have a medical condition, have suffered the loss of a loved one, or are socialising less often than they used to. One of the ongoing problems in diagnosing and treating mental illness in older adults is that older adults are more likely to report physical symptoms than psychological ones. In fact, in some cases older people may not even recognise their own mental health problems. 

Family members and caregivers of older adults need to be aware of warning signs that may indicate a mental health problem. Some of the signs that you may find in older people with anxiety or depression include the following: 

  • Changes in appearance or dress, or problems with housekeeping.
  • Confusion, memory loss, and problems concentrating or making decisions.
  • Decreased or increased appetite and weight changes.
  • Depressed mood for more than two weeks.
  • Feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, helplessness, and thoughts of suicide.
  • Physical problems that cannot be explained otherwise.
  • Social withdrawal or loss of interest in things that used to be fun for them.
  • Unexplained fatigue, loss of energy, and sleep changes.

In addition to these, you may notice that your loved one is experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned previously. If so, it is recommended to seek professional counselling and offer support to the person. With psychological treatment and therapy, the symptoms of anxiety can improve significantly. 

Common Types Of Anxiety Disorders And Their Symptoms

Anxiety disorders, as with other forms of mental illness, can manifest in several different forms. Although researchers aren’t in complete agreement about the cause of anxiety disorders, studies suggest that anxiety is related to a number of factors such as genetics, environment, stress level, brain changes and trauma. Regardless of their underlying causes, there are several types of anxiety disorders: 

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

GAD is the most common type of anxiety disorder diagnosed in older adults. This disorder causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues rather than a specific event. It is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, headache or nausea.

Panic disorder

This type of anxiety disorder is characterised by panic attacks or sudden feelings of terror that occur repeatedly and without warning. Physical symptoms include chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, abdominal discomfort, and fear of dying.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Another well known anxiety disorder, people with OCD suffer from recurrent unwanted thoughts or rituals, which they feel they cannot control. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a psychological disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. The most common symptoms are nightmares, flashbacks, numbing of emotions, depression, startling, and feeling angry, irritable or distracted.


Phobia is an extreme form of fear or anxiety, triggered by a particular situation or object that actually poses little or no real danger; the fear leads to avoidance of objects or situations and can cause people to limit their lives. 

Treatment and Coping Strategies for Anxiety in Older Adults 

The most common and effective treatment for anxiety is a combination of therapy and medication, but some people may benefit from only one form of treatment. There are several activities people can undertake to help cope with the symptoms of anxiety disorders and make treatment more effective, such as learning stress management techniques, meditating, or attending support groups where they can share experiences and coping strategies. 

Caregiving Tips for Loved Ones with Anxiety 

Lifestyle changes can be an effective way to relieve some of the stress and anxiety that a person with anxiety faces every day. Here are some of the actions you can consider to improve your loved one’s situation: 

  • Make sure the person gets enough sleep. 
  • Suggest activities such as meditation, light exercise, and other activities that keep the person physically active.
  • Encourage or provide a healthy diet and encourage them to avoid alcohol, caffeine and smoking.
  • Help them to cultivate social relationships. 
  • Seek professional help to support them in coping with their emotional response to the disorder.

At The CareSide we have extensive experience working with and providing services to older people who suffer from mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. If you are looking for help and care at home for your elderly loved one, contact us and we will be glad to assist you. 

More Information

Depression and Ageing

Older people and mental health

Anxiety in Older Adults

Managing anxiety and depression in older patients

Clinical practice guidelines for Geriatric Anxiety Disorders

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