Easing the Devastating Mental and Emotional Toll of Chronic Geriatric Pain

communicating with a new caregiverDealing with chronic pain as an older adult can be life-altering. My grandmother suffered from constant aches and pains during the latter years of her life, and it was really hard to see how much she struggled just to feel comfortable on a day-to-day basis. Because of this, she stayed home most days, only seeing people when they came to visit her.

Spending time with my grandmother during that difficult period of her life showed me how much of an impact our mental state has on how we process pain. My grandma and I talked a lot about her frustration with her physical body, and I offered empathy and compassion as best I could to try to provide her with an emotional outlet to share her feelings.

If your aging loved one is suffering from chronic geriatric pain, their emotional and mental well-being can be a significant piece in managing the condition. Approaching their chronic pain not only from a physical perspective, but also with the mental-emotional toll of the situation in mind, can make all the difference in nurturing an overall quality of life.  

Why Chronic Geriatric Pain Is Affected by Our Mental State

Chronic geriatric pain is more than just a debilitating physical condition—it can decrease your loved one’s ability to participate in hobbies, complete daily tasks, or socialize with friends and family, leading to serious mental and emotional consequences, such as:

  • Anxiety: Being in constant pain can cause anxiety about the future, and older adults might especially worry about losing their independence.
  • Shame: Your loved one might be reticent to acknowledge the amount of pain they’re in, or family members might not understand the full extent of it. Either can create an obstacle to getting treatment.
  • Depression: Being held back by pain can reduce the time your loved one spends on doing things they enjoy. This can lead to feeling hopeless about the future, and even depression.
  • Social isolation: Chronic pain often decreases an older adult’s level of socialization. Your loved one might be less mobile and unable to leave the house, or want to stay away from people when they’re in pain.
  • Sleep problems: Getting a good night’s sleep is difficult when pain is keeping you up. The resulting fatigue can lead to moodiness, or even depression

A Mental-Emotional Approach to Chronic Geriatric Pain

Of course, seeking medication, when necessary, can be a crucial step to helping your aging loved one manage their pain—tackling the mental-emotional side of chronic geriatric pain is much easier when the physical side is also being taken care of. But, it is vital to the overall health of your loved one to also acknowledge the mental and emotional components to chronic pain using some simple strategies.

Encourage Honesty

Oftentimes, older adults are hesitant to share the full extent of their pain for fear they’ll appear weak, or that others won’t believe them.

  • Ask your loved one direct questions: Check in with them about their pain, how they’re feeling on a day-to-day basis, and for specifics about the type of pain they’re experiencing.
  • Create a safe setting: Connect with them in a private setting when you both have lots of time, and when your loved one is feeling alert.
  • Offer understanding and validation: Telling someone you’re in pain is a vulnerable act, so validating your loved one’s pain reassures them they’re not alone and that help is available. Be compassionate and empathetic when they express their feelings.

Seek Professional Therapy

Having your loved one talk with a professional therapist can give them tools and strategies to help deal with the pain on many levels.

  • Take preventative measures: Don’t wait until your loved one is suffering from depression to get them into therapy—talking with a professional can help prevent issues, both emotional and physical.
  • Be open to the value of therapy: Chronic pain is known to have serious mental health consequences. Talking with a therapist can be just as helpful as pharmacological medication—and you’ll often get the best results when they’re used in tandem.

Practice Mindfulness

Along with therapy, daily mindful practices can not only help your loved one through their pain, but help them develop as a person.

  • Give resources on mindfulness: Arm your aging loved one with information on meditation, breathing techniques, and mindfulness tools. There are numerous books, articles, and videos that can help them learn how to do simple, short things each day.
  • Consider your loved one’s needs: If your loved one is mobile, try finding local meditation classes to attend. If they are unable to leave the house, point them toward online mindfulness forums, or offer to meditate with them.

Embrace a Healthy Lifestyle

Creating healthy practices is an essential step in managing and recovering from chronic pain.  

  • Eat a healthy diet: Getting good nutrition through food is essential for your loved one’s well-being. Make sure they are eating enough veggies, protein, and healthy grains, as well as drinking enough water, to help boost their energy and improve their mood.
  • Get regular sleep: Since chronic pain can hinder sleep, this one’s doubly important. Going to sleep at a regular time in a cool, darkened room, and listening to a meditative audio recording or entertaining audiobook to relax, can help ensure your loved one is getting enough shut-eye.
  • Do gentle stretching or exercise: Staying active is difficult when you’re in pain, but it’s oh-so-important while on the road to recovery. Whether with an occupational therapist or on their own, a regular exercise routine will get your loved one’s blood flowing, and give them a serotonin boost at the same time.

Chronic pain is by no means a necessary byproduct of old age—it’s a serious condition with an array of treatment options. Remembering to care for the mental component, and potential emotional fallout, as much as the physical aspects of chronic geriatric pain can help your loved one in their recovery, and their overall well-being.

It can also be helpful to remind them that even if the pain never goes away completely, there are always ways to cope, and to remain an emotionally healthy and happy person as they grow older. Validating your aging loved one’s pain, ensuring they have mental health resources, and helping them establish a healthy lifestyle, can work miracles—and reinforce the supportive bond you have built together.

If you want to learn how to better support your aging loved one, Institute on Aging offers a wide range of programs, services, and online resources to help. Get in touch today to learn more.

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Institute on Aging

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