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Stress and Aging: Recognizing & Managing Your Senior’s Symptoms

September 2, 2019

Stress is a common factor in life, and it does not discriminate. Most everyone will experience some level of stress due to life events, both large and small. From raising children, paying bills, saving for retirement, or caring for elderly parents, stressors will challenge our minds and our bodies’ defenses. Understanding the connection between stress and aging can help you and your loved one cope with life’s unexpected changes.

We may not think of our parents, who are older and wiser and who have retired and successfully raised their children, as having stressful lives. However, our moms and dads may be facing new challenges in their older years and may need to learn or relearn stress management techniques to cope. Declining health and decreased mobility, the loss of a partner, increased dependence on others, loneliness or feeling like they lack a sense of purpose can contribute to increased stress.

Our bodies are equipped to manage stress naturally. When confronted with a stressful situation, a physiological reaction occurs. Hormones are released from the adrenaline gland called cortisol, and our bodies are suddenly in the “fight-or-flight” mode.

Cortisol induces an increase in blood pressure, increased heart rate, and rapid breathing to aid in reducing the “threat” caused by a stressful event. As we get older, coping with stress isn’t as easy as it once was. According to Harvard, “Our cells are aging and heart fitness and lung capacity decline, especially if you are sedentary.” We have less resistance to the demands the body places on us to adequately accommodate this natural response.  

Stress and Aging: Recognizing the Signs & Symptoms in Older Adults

Stress affects individuals in different ways. It is essential to recognize the common symptoms, in seniors particularly, and to understand how you can help your loved ones combat its unfavorable effects. If your mom or dad seems to be out of sorts or is displaying behavior that is uncharacteristic, talk to them about what has changed, what might be troubling them and how you can help. Often, seniors suffering from stressful events will experience some of the following:

  • Feeling fatigued
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Frequent urination
  • Muscle pain
  • Worry and Anxiety
  • Forgetfulness

Mind, Body, and Spirit: How You Can Help with Stress Management

If you know your loved one is having trouble dealing with stress, they will undoubtedly benefit from your encouragement, support, and understanding. There are some lifestyle practices and techniques we have benefited from as younger adults and should continue to practice as we get older.

1. Regular Exercise

Regular exercise improves mental health, restores cognitive function, aids in preventing disease, decreases the risk of falling, and can provide social interaction. Decreased agility is common in aging adults, perhaps making it more difficult to participate in strenuous activity, however, less invasive events like walking, chair yoga, dancing or swimming might be better suited. Seniors age 65 and older should get at least 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise each week, averaging about 30 minutes of activity on most days. Encourage your loved one to invite a friend or acquaintance to be an “exercise buddy.” They will be more inclined to get moving if they have a companion who is relying on them for support… and it’s more fun!

2. Meditation

Meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness techniques have been practiced for years to reduce the symptoms of stress and age-related illness. Research has shown that with regular practice comes a wide range of physical, emotional, and medical benefits. Meditation can help you relax and organize your thoughts more efficiently. Taking 20 minutes a day to sit quietly and still your thoughts will instill a sense of calmness and give you the energy to tackle those stress-inducing events. If you have never practiced meditation or mindfulness techniques, joining a group run by a mediator with a neighbor or friend might make the introduction a little easier. If you would rather go it alone, you can get started with a guided meditation tutorial online such as Mindwork’s Guided Meditation.

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3. Remember Favorite Past-times and Hobbies

Were your parents enthusiastic about anything in particular? Painting, gardening, reading? Did they attend the theater or enjoy going to the movies, but never had enough time as a young adult to participate?  It might be the right time to re-introduce that hobby. Keeping busy with what you enjoy provides relief for the mind. Feeling creative by making something, reading a good book or planting and caring for the earth can give a sense of worth and occupy your time, leaving less time to worry. Plan a movie night once a month and reassure them you will join them in other activities they enjoy when you can.

4. Pets as Therapy

If a pet is manageable, a cat or dog can bring a tremendous about of joy and companionship. Pets don’t know if you are worried or anxious and they love unconditionally. Psychologists Penny B. Donnerfeld says, “I’ve seen those with memory loss interact with an animal and regain access to memories from long ago,” she explains. “Having a pet helps the senior focus on something other than their physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss and aging.” 

Over the long term, human and pet interactions have been known to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, heart rate, and stress levels. If your loved one is relatively active or if you are encouraging them to be more active, having the responsibility of walking a dog is another reason to get outdoors and exercise! For the elderly who may be housebound or in assisted living that allows pets, a senior dog or cat is a good option. They are more calm, quiet, and require less maintenance.  If your loved one is unable to have their own pet, there are “pet therapy” home visit services all over the country.

5. Healthy Eating Habits:

According to the National Research Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Aging, one in four older Americans have poor nutrition. Not getting the right daily nutrients can ultimately lead to being underweight or overweight. It is common to lose our sense of smell and taste with age, making food seem less appealing or unnecessary. If you are exerting less physical energy, you may not need the extra calories to burn. However, you do need the nutrients from these calories for healthy organs, muscle, and bone.  

Choosing nutrient-rich foods and getting enough fiber is important. “Fast food” is convenient!  We all know how quick and easy it is to go through the drive-thru!  However, most “on-the-go” foods are higher in sodium content and particularly important for seniors to avoid. 

Plan your visits around mealtimes. Not only will it make meals more enjoyable but you will be able to see what kinds of foods mom and dad have been eating. This will put you in a better position to help them make wise choices. 

Unfortunately, stress is a part of our lives, and we learn to deal with its adverse side effects in stride. We learn coping mechanisms, employ what works best, and continue on. Occasionally, circumstances will negate our best intentions and little seems to be effective. Always ask for help from professional providers when stress management techniques like these do not seem to be enough.  

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