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Dealing With Stress In Seniors – The Stress of Aging and Loss

By on 05/25/2015
stress in seniors

Stress In Seniors


Older people do not like changes and, as people age, there are inevitable changes that are not for the better.  These transformations invariably cause stress in seniors, as bodies, that worked so well for decades, start to weaken and tire. You simply cannot do what you could a few years ago.

When you try to shop until you drop, you drop a lot sooner.  You have trouble getting through a full day at work and doing chores when you get home is impossible.  It’s like your energy tank has been reduced to less than half what it used to be.  Your body starts to betray you, as your sense of balance goes awry and you fall down every once in a while.  Your bladder leaks before you can reach the toilet and you pass gas at the most inappropriate moments with no warning.  As you climb up a flight of stairs you think wistfully of the time when you could have run up those stairs two at a time.  Never again.  So many never agains.

Old age is a time of never agains.  Never again will you hike ten miles or climb a rocky cliff.  Never again will you race down a beach laughing at your children or your dogs or your lover.  Never again will you have the strength to do the work you’ve spent your lifetime doing.  You have to retire.  Changes again.  And stress.

Stress can be either acute or chronic, or sometimes one on top of the other.  Acute stress is more the fight or flight reaction, the feelings you get when an old friend dies, or you back up in a parking lot and hit another car because you cannot turn your head well enough to see in back.  Perhaps you stumble on the sidewalk and fall, scraping up your knees and hands and causing yourself no end of embarrassment.

The incident, whether it is bad news, a fender-bender or injury, causes your adrenal glands to release hormones, epinephrine and cortisol.  Your heart speeds up, your blood pressure goes up, your respiration increase and your muscles tense.  When you were younger, your body would compensate for the internal changes, epinephrine and cortisol levels would fall and after a time, you would return to a normal state.  But that ability to compensate wears out, too, as we age.  The elderly have difficulty readjusting after a stressful incident.  And telling them to relax generally just irritates them, because they can’t relax. That capability has gone away.  So the heart rate and blood pressure remain elevated for longer periods of time, which places more stress on the aging body.

But mostly the elderly suffer from chronic stress, the stress of loss.  Stress in seniors is unique because of the anxieties caused by their diminishing capabilities, the stress of loss – loss of everything that is important in life, especially people.  Parents, if they haven’t died before, will be lost. Siblings, those special friends who grew up with you, fought with you, chased you with squirt guns and stood beside you at your wedding, they, too, will be aging. They can be lost.  Friends, spouse, even children, can die before you do.

stress in seniors

Fear of being alone

Being left alone is one fear that haunts the old, but there are other fears, some even worse.  The greatest terror for most people is the loss of independence, the day when your children decide it’s time to move you into a nursing home because you’ve already lost control over your body and you keep falling down. Or you cannot coordinate your movements well enough to dress yourself, let alone cook or clean your home.  You are no longer capable of taking care of yourself.  At this point many people just give up.  They lose all sense of purpose in life and sink into depression, a state from which some never escape.  Then, because depression in the elderly can mimic dementia, they assume they are also losing their mental faculties as well, which worsens the depression.

Alzheimer’s is terrifying.  You can’t remember a friend’s name or the name of an item.  You lock yourself out of the car or the house.  You get involved in a project and leave the stove on.  And you start to think you’re becoming demented, which causes depression, which makes the forgetfulness worse, which increases your anxiety about Alzheimer’s.  Many people are concerned about the deterioration of their appearance.  No one takes this change well. But the onset of wrinkles, ugly skin lesions, sagging skin, a bleariness in the eyes and slumping shoulders tends to whittle away at your self-confidence.

stress in seniors There are other problems that face the older population.  Some older people have to deal with taking care of elderly parents or a spouse who is sick or incapable of caring for him or herself.  Caretaker stress can be exhausting in younger people.  It is much worse in the elderly. Other elderly individuals have very limited incomes and have to work in order to survive.  Financial stress can be very real despite Social Security.

All of these fears exacerbate the chronic stress in seniors.  And this causes the wear and tear on the body to worsen, accelerating the aging processes and increasing the likelihood of heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive disorders such as irritable bowel disease, stroke, as well as depression. Chronic stress in seniors can also cause an aging immune system to falter and fail when confronted by a relatively minor infection.  A cold can turn into pneumonia which can overpower an immune system in decline.

Sometimes the signs of these tensions in the elderly can be subtle. Watch for changes in eating – not eating well, losing weight, or conversely, overeating and gaining weight.  Sleep habits may be a problem.  Older people generally need less sleep than the younger population normally, but some older people have trouble getting more than a few hours of sleep a night.  Worsening forgetfulness, irritability, sadness, obvious depression are all concerning signs of stress in seniors. Isolation is one of the worst signs.  The older man whose wife has died, won’t come out of his house, rarely bathes, wears the same clothes day after day, is a case in point.  He needs help sooner rather than later – before he is found lying dead in his recliner.

The deterioration of age cannot be stopped, but those changes do not need to be devastating.  With help most people can adjust to the transformations in their lives and learn to accept their diminishing capabilities without becoming depressed.  Everyone has concerns about what the future may bring, but we do not need to let those fears overwhelm us.  Your doctor can help and so can your friends and family, senior centers, Councils on Aging.  There are resources just about everywhere.  You don’t have to stand alone against age.  It is a trial that each of us has to face if we’re lucky enough to get that far.



For a 5 week one-on-one stress coaching program, contact Healthcoach Cathy with the Burnout Breakthrough Program.

Holmes and Rahe stress scale
The Holmes and Rahe stress scale is a list of 43 stressful life events that can contribute to illness. In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard




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