When Your Aging Parent Seems Anxious, Irrational or Refuses Help: 6 Things to Keep in Mind

March 6, 2023

When families reach out to us, it’s very common for them to be dealing with an aging parent’s difficult moods, paranoia, or confusing behaviour. This can be an incredibly draining and upsetting situation to be in, leaving you at your wits’ end, struggling to know what to do.

But you’re not alone. And in our experience providing care and support to families like yours, there are things you can do to best manage and calm your elderly loved one’s anxiety. Here are six important things to bear in mind.

1. Try to get to the source of their feelings

While a persistent worry or fear may seem silly or illogical to you, to an older adult, thoughts may prey on them in a different way. Being forced to accept that they can no longer manage things themselves — being forced, more and more, to rely on others — may be fuelling their anxiety more than you know. Refusing to accept help can be a way of holding onto control, feeling like they’re steering the ship in some small way, or even trying to get your attention. Understanding and acknowledging your elderly parent’s feelings can go a long way in making communication easier.

2. Make sure you can rule out underlying cognitive impairment

It’s important to know if your loved one’s behaviour is related to underlying cognitive impairment. Any form of dementia or memory loss that hasn’t yet been diagnosed will affect the way you can communicate with your loved one, and likely deepen their distress. To ensure there is no neurological issue such as dementia or Alzheimer’s at play, ask the doctor to arrange a geriatric assessment for your parent.

3. Check if any medications are interfering with others

Make sure you know what medications have been prescribed to your parent and their potential side effects, and don’t overlook any over-the-counter meds and any vitamins or dietary supplements they may be taking. Be vigilant of any drug interactions that could be affecting their behaviour — certain medications can also interact with alcohol, and even some foods.

4. Find out if sleep deprivation is playing a part

It’s very common for anxious thoughts to loom large at bedtime, leading to insomnia. An aging person who is chronically sleep-deprived may become more anxious in the face of everyday challenges, feeling like their troubles are spiralling. You can try to help your loved one work towards a better night’s sleep, encouraging them to get enough exercise, limit naps, eat their larger meals earlier in the day, and stick to a restful bedtime routine. Also ensure that if your parent is on anxiety or anti-depression medications, their meds are not inadvertently causing them to have disrupted sleep.

5. Consider therapy for their anxiety, but recognize generational challenges

To those from past generations, speaking openly about mental challenges — much less seeking treatment from a professional — can feel unnatural, even inconceivable. In some cases, though, a therapist could help your elderly parent start to undo long-ingrained habits of fear, worry and anxiety. If you’re broaching the topic, try your best to avoid infantilizing your parent. While it may at times feel like the two of you have switched roles, you’ll have much more chance of success if you treat them like the adult they are.

6. Pick your battles, and keep fostering positive emotions

An older person who is resistant to change or help is much more likely to be receptive to you if you don’t bombard them with your concerns. Start with the issues you feel are most important, and go slowly with your advice so your parent doesn’t feel nagged by you. As hard as it can be, sometimes the best course of action is to stand by, keep a careful watch on things, and be ready to intervene when needed.
And no matter your loved one’s age, no matter their mental condition, making sure they feel heard and loved can often be more reassuring than simply reasoning with them. Take every opportunity you can to reinforce your emotional connection, making sure they know you’re coming from a place of love and care.

How Just Like Family can help

If you’re feeling overwhelmed as a carer or feel like you’ve hit a wall with your loved one, please know you can reach out to our friendly, highly trained Just Like Family team at any time. We’re here to provide support in many forms, and it all starts with a conversation.

NOTE: These tips are intended for informational purposes only and not intended as medical advice. We encourage readers to expand their knowledge on this topic for accuracy and completeness.

Tags: anxiety