April has been Stress Awareness Month since 1992, when health care professionals and experts joined forces to raise awareness for a growing stress epidemic. While retirement is often perceived as a time for relaxation, aging can be a stressful process for seniors, especially if they have to manage difficult health conditions, loss of independence, or separation from friends and family. In honour of Stress Awareness Month, here are several ways to understand, identify, and reduce stress in a senior’s life.
The Power of Stress Hormones
Stress causes the body to release cortisol, a hormone that is known to damage the hippocampus, an area of the brain crucial for storing and retrieving memories. An increase in stress hormones has also been linked to a number of serious health issues, including heart disease, higher blood pressure, and a weaker immune system. As we grow older, our bodies have more difficulty regulating hormones, making these effects especially harmful to seniors.
Look for the Signs
Stress can be difficult to identify, especially since it doesn’t have any telltale symptoms. However, there are certain signs caregivers should look for, especially after a significant change in a senior’s health or family situation. A change in appetite or eating habits, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, increased colds or flus, or loss of interest in daily activities are all signs that a person is experiencing significant levels of stress. Keep in mind, however, that these behaviours can be the result of other issues, such as depression, which often go hand-in-hand with stress. To make sure you accurately understand the situation, check-in with seniors often to ask how they are feeling, and involve a mental health professional when necessary.
Increase Social Support
One of the best ways to reduce stress is to interact with others. Encourage seniors to spend more time with friends and family, whether it’s in-person, over the phone, or even through letters. If face-to-face interaction with loved ones isn’t possible, consider joining a social activity, such as a fitness class or bridge group. Spending time with others decreases isolation and increases feelings of belonging and solidarity, allowing seniors to feel less stressed.
Stay Active & Keep Breathing
Regular physical activity and fresh air is imperative to reduce stress and anxiety. Seniors may feel that exercise is difficult or impossible due to certain health constraints, but physical activity does not have to be vigorous to help manage stress. Simply walking around the block, stretching, breathing deeply, or spending time outside is enough to be beneficial. Seniors and caregivers should decide together what type and level of activity is most enjoyable and commit to doing it as often as possible.
Improve your Environment
Our surroundings can both increase or decrease stress, depending on how they have been set up and maintained. Large amounts of dust and dirt can trigger stress, and clutter can cause feelings of anxiety or loss of control. For tips on how to create a healthy environment for seniors, please take a look at our guides to cleaning a senior’s home and helping them stay organized. Additionally, consider adding plants, colourful items, or personal touches such as framed photographs; a clean, bright, inviting space can help soothe a worried mind.
We hope you have a greater understanding of how stress affects the body and what you can do to keep it under control. If you have any comments or questions in regard to stress management, please share them below.