The 5 things I did to help my aging mother with her increasing anxiety
The article below was written by guest contributor Joe M and medically reviewed by Taylor Froiland, PharmD, RPh. Learn more about Taylor and our other experts here.
My 86-year-old mother developed pneumonia over the winter break. Prior to her illness she was living on her own and still working in a business she had started when she was 60 years old.
After 2 weeks in the hospital and 2 weeks in a recovery facility, physically she was feeling much better. But mentally she was in a pretty bad place.
Her primary issue post physical recovery…anxiety.
She was anxious about money, anxious about who was going to care for her, anxious about where she was going to live, anxious about her health, anxious that she had messed everything up.
If this sounds like you, or you’ve ever felt like your anxiety was beginning to take control of your life, please read on.
Because anxiety is serious. And it can have severe consequences on your physical health. This is particularly true for older people who are more vulnerable to getting sidelined when their health changes in any way.
For my mother, anxiety was even beginning to roll back her physical recovery and potentially to start a downward spiral.
Anxiety was preventing her from eating because her stomach was “tied in knots”. And it made her want to spend the day in bed and not exercising.
Here are the 5 things I did to help her, which hopefully can help you or a loved one struggling with anxiety:
1. Keep a journal
I bought her a notebook and asked her to write down her negative thoughts and any positive thoughts.
- Jumpy nerves
- No appetite
- No finances
- No confidence
- Good looking kids
- Sky is blue
The University of Rochester Medical Center reports that journaling, especially if you’re wrestling with stress, depression or anxiety, can have profound and almost immediate benefits.1
Getting your thoughts down on paper, especially when you’re in the throes of a rotten mood or mental state can help you prioritize your fears, problems and concerns.
Researchers recommend making some time, even if it’s just a few minutes, to journal every day. Keep it simple. And write whatever feels right in the moment.
“Look at your writing time as personal relaxation time. It’s a time when you can de-stress and wind down. Write in a place that’s relaxing and soothing, maybe with a cup of tea. Look forward to your journaling time. And know that you’re doing something good for your mind and body.”2
2. Get sunlight
My sister pointed out to our mother, who lives in Canada (where it is very cold and grey in the winter), that she had not been outside in over 30 days.
We need sunlight to live. Just take a look at what happens to plants when exposed to artificial light compared to real sunlight.
We felt that this lack of sunlight was contributing to her anxiety. With a little encouragement, we were able to convince mom to relocate south to a warmer, sunnier climate for a month.
Within just a few days, the turnaround in her mood and energy were tremendous.
An article published in the peer-reviewed journal, Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, back up our assumptions, “Anxiety symptoms may also flux with seasonal changes, with a worsening of symptoms during the winter months.”3
The article also looks at an Australian study of 133 adults with symptoms of anxiety and panic and, as anticipated, the subjects’ symptoms were far worse in the colder, darker months.4
Whenever possible, try to get at least 15 minutes of direct sunlight exposure every day. And if you live in an area that just doesn’t see the sun for days or weeks at a time, you can typically find inexpensive sun lamps online—they are able to mimic the exact spectrum of light you’d get from sun exposure.
Obviously, you don’t want to overdo it. But 15-20 minutes in the sun or in front of a sun lamp every day can do wonders for your mood.
3. Get up and move
When one is sick and lying down, it is very difficult to control the negative thoughts that inevitably creep into your head. My mother was incredibly negative and was having a tough time getting out of bed. She didn’t want to walk or move around because it felt difficult—she had lost her balance and her confidence.
One of the only times my mother perked up was when I mentioned Dick Van Dyke.
Like many women at the time, she had a huge crush on him back when he starred in The Dick Van Dyke show of the 60s. He was one of her favorites—and clearly he still is.
Interestingly enough, Van Dyke, now 94, has an excellent new book out on longevity and how life can get better the longer you live it. Among the countless gems he shares throughout the book, “keep moving” is one of them.
The benefits of exercise, especially as we get older, cannot be understated. Not only is it good for the heart and the cardiovascular system, movement actually helps slow the progression of arthritis. It helps rid the body of toxins. And, according to the Harvard Health Letter, “…pills aren’t the only solution. Research shows that exercise is also an effective treatment. For some people it works as well as antidepressants.”
4. Feeling important and needed
To help motivate my mother, I pointed out to her that while I was perfect, my sister still needed significant parenting.
Surprisingly, my mother and sister disagreed with me and we had a family debate on who needed the most work.
What this did though was communicate to my mother that she was still needed and valued. Taking care of her children who needed her was a reason for her to work on getting better, to get out of bed and to move around, and recover her physical and mental strength.
In a recent New York Times Op Ed article titled, Behind our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded, The Dali Lama wrote, “Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirt.”
Therefore, feeling needed is a huge boon to the human spirit.
5. Start with small goals and take time for big decisions
Given my mother’s illness and weakened physical and mental state it was clear that she was not ready to return to her business and living on her own. She needed care and help to manage some of her new limitations.
But, she’s still in good shape for her age. And she has the potential to get better and return to living a rich and fulfilling life.
Her anxiety and worry over what was going to happen to her was standing in the way of doing the smaller tasks that she needed to work on to ease the transition back into healthy living.
One of the first things we did was to set small realistic goals for her to achieve.
Getting out of bed… taking a few more steps each day… personal care and hygiene were some of things we focused on to give her a sense of accomplishment and get her positioned for the next stage of her life.
And sometimes planning a day to rest and do nothing is ok.
Anxiety can stand in the way of health, happiness—even physical wellness—if it’s allowed to go unchecked. These 5 steps worked wonders for my mother who’s still well on her way to a full recovery.
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