Stress and aging go hand-in-hand over the whole course of our lives. More than just a mental-emotional experience, a stressful situation triggers biochemical responses that kick our bodies into high gear so we can better handle that situation. However, we aren’t meant to be in this high-alert mode for long periods of time, let alone long periods of our life. While stress hormones and tension can be truly important reactions in times of real danger, when our stress response is getting triggered regularly in the context of everyday situations, those physical and chemical reactions take a toll on our health and on our ability to be resilient and cope with stress in general.
Stress contributes to processes of aging at any time in life, and older adults face additional challenges to coping with stress. Later in life, our bodies and minds have already been through a lot of stress and degeneration. It’s a compounding struggle, and our best bet is dedicating early attention to cut the effects of stress off at the roots; the life of stress starts with a triggering source, which leads to the experience of distress, which can lead to damaging results such as anxiety, depression, higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, joint aches, and decreased immune function. We can look out for the signs of stress in seniors and work to identify its sources in order to head off stress-related damage in the long term.
What Are the Signs That a Senior Is Stressed?
Sometimes stress goes unnoticed simply because we tend to be used to this way of being. It’s a familiar condition, and at many times it seems unavoidable. But when we can see stress as an evolving process and understand that stress doesn’t have to be in control, we can take action and help our aging loved ones to do so too. When we also become familiar with a state of relaxation and embodied presence in the moment, those moments of stress will become more noticeable and beg for proactive attention.
As a caregiver, you are in a great position to observe an aging loved one’s ways of being from day to day and notice any changes. As you take note of their general wellness and behaviors (use this daily notes template as a helpful tool), look for:
- Changes in eating habits
- Changes in mood, including greater irritability, anxiety, sadness, indifference, or even unusual elation or overactivity
- Difficulties with short-term memory
- Difficulties with concentration
- Unusual patterns of judgment
- Withdrawal and isolation
- Less attention to personal hygiene, grooming, and self-care
- Tension headaches
- More aches and pains in general
- Frequent sickness
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Difficulties sleeping
- Low energy and fatigue
This list isn’t exhaustive. Stress can show up in many different ways for each of us. Paying attention to your loved one’s moods and patterns—especially if you’ve known them for a very long time—can give you clues to the fact that something is not right. An older adult’s doctor is also a great resource when it comes to identifying signs and symptoms of stress in seniors. And, of course, you can lead by example by taking responsibility for your own stress and self-care.
How Can We Help to Minimize Stress for Our Aging Loved Ones?
Just as with other powerful emotional experiences, stress can sometimes seem to take the driver’s seat and be in control. Helping your loved one to zoom out and look at this experience of stress as something to pass through rather than become trapped within can head off the risk of being overcome and overpowered. Identifying the sources of stress can be incredibly helpful, as it turns this otherwise overwhelming experience into a more tangible cause-and-effect relationship. Guiding them to see that taking action around their sources of stress can be a direct method of dissolving the stress itself.
Greater self-awareness and the use of relaxation techniques can actually become significant parts of an older adult’s toolbox for stress relief and better overall quality of life. Creating daily routines to practice awareness and relaxation together is a great way to reset the present course of stress. This might involve a gentle yoga routine you can do from a chair, a guided meditation to draw the focus into the present moment, or daily journaling to help your loved one shine a brighter light on their experiences and feelings. Taking walks together in nature can also be stress relieving and help to bring attention to the positivity around you.
Of course, the great ideas for stress relief and relaxation don’t stop there. You might think of a comprehensive approach to long-term stress management combining the elements of:
Proactive Awareness and Life Organization + Regular Time Out for Joy and Fun
Typical sources of stress in older adults can include existing problems with things like health, finances, relationships, home responsibilities, and even one’s changing understanding of personal identity. And sources of stress also often point to increasing isolation, especially if one has lost a partner or other loved ones; a decline of stimulating activities and meaningful occupation; and the fact that we never took the time out to explore what it means to really enjoy our golden years later in life. It helps to discuss these sources of stress together, as well as potential solutions and action steps, and to speak with compassionate counselors through individual or group therapy.
Stress is certainly not inevitable. Keeping an open mind and approaching the stress experience with empathy for our aging loved ones can mean the difference between a life that grows darker under the weight of stress and a life whose brightness continues to shine light on the joys and the challenges.
With a commitment to empowering older adults and caregivers to make life the best that it can be, Institute on Aging offers diverse programs, services, and resources to put effective tools in your hands. Reach out today, and we’ll help to identify the areas of stress that could use some compassionate attention.