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Stress and its effect on older adults

Last Modified: April 26, 2021

Healthy Mind, Community

stress and seniors

Stress is a normal part of everyday life, but it can be debilitating, especially for older adults. In honor of Stress Awareness Month, we caught up with Leah Heaston, manager, LifeBridge Senior Program, Parkview LaGrange Hospital, as she explains what stress is, its effect on seniors and which strategies are best for coping with life’s biggest challenges.

What is stress?

Stress is a normal physical, mental and emotional reaction or response to the ever-increasing demands of life, including change. Stress can come from any event or thought that makes you feel intense emotion. Additionally, stress can also be perceived as positive or negative. Positive stress could include situations like a new job, retirement, wedding or birth. Negative stress could consist of a life-threatening situation, death of a loved one, hospitalization, etc. Overall, our perception determines how we view an event and the way in which we choose to respond to it. On occasion, stress can actually be beneficial. It can challenge and motivate us, increasing our ability to be more resilient.

What are the leading causes of stress among seniors?

One thing the senior community has in their favor is that they have lived. They have undoubtedly gone through many different forms of stress and change in their lifetime. They have likely developed resiliency, which is the ability to bounce back from difficult situations. Unfortunately, there are challenges they face that the rest of us may not have to deal with, including:

  • Isolation
  • Living on a fixed income
  • Inability to afford daily medications
  • Experiencing cognitive, functional and sensory impairments
  • Dealing with one or more chronic health conditions, pain and complicated diagnoses
  • Coping with a loss like a retirement, financial independence, loved ones, purpose in life and ability to carry out everyday tasks
How does stress affect the body as we get older?

For seniors, stress often manifests itself in more physical ways, including health problems. Warning signs of stress could include frequent headaches, sleep problems, insomnia, fatigue (physical and mental), difficulty concentrating, change in appetite, muscle tension, pain, chest pain, stomach upset and more. So, if someone already has some chronic health conditions, it may mask these common symptoms of stress. Additionally, chronic stress can also lead to more severe health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Those living in a constant state of stress are also prone to illnesses like a cold or the flu, and vaccines tend to be less effective.

How can the senior population reduce or avoid these stressors?

The first step is accepting and recognizing that stress is a natural part of life. Next is knowing your stressors and what those signs of stress look like for you because what’s stressful for one person isn’t necessarily stressful for another. Knowing what the stressors feel like and where they occur in the body can be extremely helpful. Is it tension in your back or neck? Is it an upset stomach? Can you feel the muscles in your face tense or your teeth clench? Recognizing the feeling and where it is in the body allows you to work toward de-escalating it.

Another critical component is identifying what caused the stress. Recognizing your triggers and the emotional, behavioral and physical responses you have to the stress is crucial. Only then can you take steps and make changes to mitigate the stress. There will always be some form of stress in our lives, but the goal is to keep it manageable.

Finally, when it comes to prevention, it can look different for everyone. For some, it can mean getting more sleep, regular exercise or taking vitamins, while others may benefit from reflection, mindfulness and acceptance. No matter how or what you choose to do to mitigate the stress, daily prevention is key. I like to utilize something called the Vowel Check. Brené Brown speaks on this technique in her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection.” Each day you want to utilize the Vowel Check and answer these questions:

  • A = Have I been Abstinent today? (I use this in terms of avoiding unhealthy choices like stress eating, staying up too late or engaging in unhealthy behaviors)
  • E = Have I Exercised today?
  • I = What have I done for myself today?
  • O = What have I done for Others today?
  • U = Am I holding on to Unexpressed emotions today?
  • Y = Yeah! What is something good that’s happened today?

These are basic self-care items that everyone should be partaking in daily and are essential stepping stones in preventing stress.

What is the LifeBridge Senior Program, and what services do they offer to assist seniors coping with life’s stressors?

The LifeBridge Senior Program is an intensive outpatient mental health program for seniors, available in both LaGrange and Wabash. We help people who are struggling to cope with life’s challenges, including things like loss, stress, loneliness or adjusting to significant life events. Our experienced medical director, expert counselors and skilled nurses at LifeBridge provide everyone with compassionate care in both an individual, family and group counseling setting. Our goal is to help improve your overall quality of life.

For more information about the LifeBridge Senior Program in LaGrange, please call 260-463-9270. For details about the program in Wabash, please call 260-569-2111.

For information about other behavioral health services, call the Parkview Behavioral Health HelpLine at (260) 373-7500 or (800) 284-8439, anytime 24 hours a day. Experienced specialists are available to guide you to the appropriate level of care or resources for your situation.

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