Winter Woes for Seniors: How to Stay Safe as the Temperature Drops

There’s a lot to like about winter, unless you’re a dedicated sun worshipper, of course; we have to admit, though, we like to get our cozy on when the temperature drops. But now that the icy season is in full swing, it’s also important to recognize the dangers that winter can bring, especially for older adults. There are lots of risks to your health and safety that are lurking both indoors and out, but there are ways you can avoid them and focus on enjoying the winter (or waiting for the spring thaw)!

Stay Toasty When You Head Outside

caucasian person with a blue shirt on holding their heart area
Hypothermia can lead to a heart attack, and even death.

We don’t want to sound like your mom, but, because it becomes increasingly difficult to regulate your body temperature as you age, it’s really important that you wrap up warm if you’re going to be heading outside. After all, according to the CDC, people over age 65 make up over half of all hypothermia deaths! Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and can result in serious health problems, like heart attack, kidney issues, and even death. 

The best way to get yourself ready to brave the cold is to dress in loose layers (the air between the layers will help keep you warmer), which will allow you to shed excess clothing if you become too warm, and make sure that no skin is exposed to the cold. And, because hypothermia happens very gradually and so can be difficult to detect, you should know the symptoms:

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness

Keep Your Home Warm

Following on the theme of staying nice and toasty, you should also make sure you’re heating your home properly when the winter chill sets in outside: try keeping your thermostat set to at least 68 degrees at all times. Yes, that can be pricey, so it can be tempting to skimp on the heating if you’re on a fixed income, but before you lower the thermostat, try doing some simple projects around the house (or getting someone to help you with them), like closing vents, putting plastic on windows, or placing rolled towels or blankets in front of doors to reduce drafts.

Keep Your Home Safe

When it comes to time spent at home, you’ve got to think about more than just staying warm during the winter: this season brings some indoor hazards that might not be as much of an issue in the warmer seasons. For example, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from the use of fireplaces, heaters, or lanterns greatly increases at this time of year, so be sure to check that you have working carbon monoxide detectors in your home. carbon monoxide monitor

You should also be sure that you have working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers at home: it’s an unfortunate fact that seniors are 3 times more likely to die or be injured in home fires. That means that if you are using alternative ways to keep warm at home, you need to be very careful. For example, you might be using space heaters, which are great for keeping toes toasty, but can be a real fire hazard if used incorrectly. If you’re going to use one, make sure you:

  • Keep all sides of the heater at least 3 feet from anything that could be a fire hazard
  • Put the heater on a stable surface so it won’t tip
  • Don’t plug it into an extension cord or run the cord under carpeting or rugs
  • Unplug it immediately if the cord or outlet become hot
  • Never leave the heater unattended or running while you’re asleep

In addition, if you have a fireplace – well, lucky you! In all seriousness, though, if you do have a fireplace, remember to get your chimney and flue inspected annually to reduce the risk of unintended fires. In addition, always put a large screen around your fireplace to prevent sparks from flying out and landing on flammable surfaces.

Be Prepared for Severe Weather

In many parts of the country, winter brings with it some pretty intense weather, so make sure you’re ready in the event that you have to be holed up (hopefully all cozy in front of your newly cleaned fireplace!). Prepare for possible power outages by:

  • Keeping flashlights and fresh batteries in places where they are easy to find, so you can grab them and find your way around the house.
  • Having piles of blankets, as well as extra hats, scarves, and sweaters stashed in easily accessible places so you can keep warm.
  • Stocking your pantry with nonperishable foods that can be eaten without cooking or storing in the fridge, as well as bottled water, just in case.

Stop Slips and Falls

Alarmingly, the National Institutes of Health report that around 1.6 million older adults go to the emergency room because of a fall each year; other statistics suggest that 1 in 4 older adults will experience a fall at some point. And all studies point to the fact that your chance of a fall greatly increases in colder weather if you’re over 65, and increases even more significantly if you’re over 75. A bad fall can lead to some pretty serious consequences, so it’s important to keep yourself safe if you do have to head out in wintery weather: pair of sneakers

  • Always wear rubber-soled, non-slip shoes.
  • Keep up with your eye health, so your vision is at its best!
  • Maintain an exercise routine, so you can feel more mobile, balanced, and sure-footed.
  • Be extra cautious, and always assume that there could be a layer of ice on every surface.
  • Carry a cell phone or alert device with you at all times, so you easily get help in case of an emergency.

And when it comes to walking safely, don’t forget your own property! If you can’t do it yourself, line up some to shovel and salt your driveway, walkways, stairs, or sidewalk in front of your home. 

Chase Away the Blues

The long, dark winter months, when it can be difficult to get out, can also be challenging to your mental health. The best way to proactively combat the possibility of seasonal depression creeping in? Spend some dedicated time with friends and family, whether it’s setting up regular visits, joining in with activities in your retirement community if you live in one, or even having scheduled video chats with loved ones if you can’t get out. You can even volunteer in your community to get the benefits of feeling connected to others; there are lots of options to do so virtually, as well, if you aren’t comfortable traveling somewhere or being around a lot of people.

One other thing you can do? When the sun is shining, head outside and soak it in! Natural light helps to combat symptoms of seasonal depression.

Boost Your Body

bowl of oatmeal with strawberries on top
Get extra vitamin C and zinc in your body during the winter months to help boost your immune system.

You’ll need to keep yourself emotionally healthy AND physically healthy now that the cold has set in. Number one on the list? Make sure you’re up-to-date on all your vaccines, especially flu and pneumonia.

Next, don’t forget to eat right. Sure, we might be missing all the seasonal summer fruits, but you still need to eat your rainbow, and make sure you’re eating foods rich in essential vitamins and nutrients, including vitamin C and zinc. Try making smoothies with frozen strawberries and kale or enjoying some seasonal citrus fruits to get your vitamin C. For zinc, whip up some warming hot chicken soup or chili with kidney beans or garbanzo beans (add bell peppers for bonus vitamin C!), snack on some nuts, or start your day with some steaming oatmeal (yogurt will also do the trick, but won’t warm you up in quite the same way!)

Finally, move your body! Yes, we did warn you to be careful out there, but it’s still important to get out and get moving when the weather permits; when it doesn’t, try doing some stretching or yoga inside – there are lots of videos you can follow along with on the internet. 

You know, as we grow older, we learn to appreciate every season, don’t we? There’s beauty in each part of the year, even if it’s hard to see it while we’re struggling to shovel the walkway or are worried about taking a tumble off an icy curb! But if you take a few precautions as outlined above, you can be ready for this season, and enjoy it for everything it has to offer. Now get out there and get your winter on – or, you know, cuddle up by the fire and have a cozy night in, whatever floats your seasonal boat.

‘Tis the Season…For Illness! How Seniors Can Boost Their Immune Systems

These days, we’re all thinking about our health and immune systems, and if you’re an older adult, that probably goes double for you. But even before people of all ages were wondering whether they should be disinfecting their groceries, you’d probably been noticing that your immune system just wasn’t what it used to be. And now maybe you feel like you get sick more often than you did when you were younger, or that it takes longer for you to get back on your feet again – so is that all in your head? And what can you do to give your immune system the boost it needs as the cold and flu season hits us?

Is Your Immune System Not Quite What It Used to Be?

red blood cells with virus pathogens floating around
As you age, your immune system gets weaker, making it harder for it to fight off viruses.

The answer to whether you’re just imagining a decline in your immune system is no, you’re not just imagining it. Your immune system – your body’s natural defense against illness and infection – does tend to get weaker with age. That’s actually the ironic thing about our increasing life expectancies: as we live longer and longer, we see more and more how our bodies decline with age, and our immune systems are no different. They take a hit with age, allowing more infections, diseases, and cancer to take hold; this tendency to lose some of our immunity as we age is known as “immune senescence.” 

“Just as you probably can’t run as fast as you used to in your 20s, your immune system doesn’t work as well as it used to,” says Aaron E. Glatt, MD, chairman of the department of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospitals.

While scientists aren’t quite sure why this happens, they have observed that the increased risk of infections (and of dying of respiratory illnesses like the flu, pneumonia, and Covid-19) for older adults is linked with a decrease in T cells (which attack other, illness-causing cells). This is possibly due to the normal atrophying of the thymus gland with age, which leads to it producing fewer T cells to fight off infection. There is also some speculation that our bone marrow becomes less efficient at producing the stem cells that help create the cells of the immune system, or that inflammation and infections chip away at our immune systems over time.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the following three things happen as you age:

  • Your body doesn’t respond as well to vaccines – Again, when you’re older, you don’t make as many T cells, and most vaccines need new ones to work. But that doesn’t mean you should skip your vaccines! Despite the reduction in efficacy, vaccinations for influenza and S. pneumoniae have significantly lowered the rates of sickness and death in older people when compared with no vaccination.
  • You become more susceptible to illness – Not only do you have fewer cells that fight infection, the ones you do have also don’t communicate as effectively with each other, meaning they might not be as quick on the uptake when it comes to reacting to germs (hey, it happens to the best of us!)
  • You recover from illness, injury, and infection more slowly – You also produce fewer white blood cells as you age, which can slow down recovery from illness.

What Can You Do?

While all of the above is true, and can mean a bit more worry as we approach the germy winter season, you don’t have to take it all lying down (in bed, with a box of tissues at hand). While there is no magic cure-all, you can try the following things to keep your aging immune system as strong as possible for as long as possible:

Get Your Z’s

woman sleeping in a big bed

Getting enough sleep is important at every age, but as you get older, it becomes even more important since it helps improve brain function, concentration, and memory. But sleep is also important for keeping your immune system strong: according to Gisele Wolf-Klein, MD, ““Research clearly shows that too little sleep – or poor-quality sleep – lowers immunity, even in young healthy people.” Aim for at least 7-9 hours of sleep a night; remember to keep your bedroom dark, cool, and screen-free, try not to take excessive naps, and limit caffeine consumption to get your optimal amount of sleep. 

Work on Your Stress Levels

A bit of short-term stress probably isn’t going to affect your body, but chronic stress can actually take a toll on your immune system. When under stress, your body increases the production of the stress hormone, cortisol, which has the side effect of limiting bodily functions that aren’t essential in a fight-or-flight situation. That means that constantly producing extra cortisol could lower your immune system response, and make you more susceptible to illness; not only that, but you might find yourself sleeping and eating poorly if you’re under constant stress, which can also work against you. Try to find ways to relax that you enjoy, or add meditation, breathing, or yoga into your life, and remember to set limitations and say “no” when you need to focus on you.

Eat Healthy, Including Immune-Boosting Foods

There isn’t one single food you can eat, or diet you can follow, to improve your immunity, but it is important to eat a healthy, varied diet full of vitamin and mineral-rich foods, like fresh fruits and veggies. You should especially look for dark, leafy greens and anything in the red, yellow or orange family, which are loaded with immune-boosting vitamin C and antioxidants. Some researchers do suggest trying to incorporate the following immune-boosting foods:

different kinds of citrus fruits
Citrus fruits can help boost your immune system.
  • Citrus fruits
  • Watermelon
  • Ginger
  • Spinach
  • Greek yogurt
  • Chicken

Exercise and Maintain a Healthy Weight

Some researchers believe that excess weight – especially abdominal fat – triggers inflammation, which not only increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes, but also puts stress on your immune system. Eating a healthy, varied diet as discussed above can also go a long way toward maintaining a healthy weight, as can moving your body more, helping to keep your immune system working at its best. Research also suggests that exercise helps cells move more freely, which helps them do their job better.

Quit Smoking

The chemicals in cigarettes are known to damage lung tissue and increase the risk for cancer, but they can also cause respiratory illnesses such as the flu, bronchitis, and pneumonia. There are so many good reasons for quitting, so if you smoke, talk to your doctor about the best way for you, whether it’s a gum, a patch, a prescription medication, counselling, or a combination of these methods.

Get Outsidetwo older people sitting on a boat in the sun

Spending a little time out in the sunshine can help to boost your vitamin D levels, which can help strengthen your immune system; if your vitamin D levels are really low, your doctor can prescribe supplements or recommend an over-the-counter supplement. Just remember not to spend too much time in the strong sun, so you can avoid sunburns and excessive amounts of UV radiation, which can cause cancer. 

Stay on Top of Your Health

If you’re living with chronic conditions like diabetes or arthritis that affect your overall functioning and make you feel less than tip-top, make sure to follow all of your doctor’s recommendations for keeping these conditions under control. Again according to Dr. Glatt, “Keeping illnesses like diabetes well-controlled takes less of a toll on your immune system.”

Get Vaccinated!hand with a blue glove on it holding a needle.

Yes, we did point out that vaccines are not as effective for older adults, but they are still an extremely important way to lower your risk of illnesses that can be much more serious for seniors, like flu and pneumonia – not to mention Covid-19. And they have been proven to significantly lower risks of infections in older adults when compared to taking no vaccine at all. Talk to your doctor about all of the vaccines that you should be getting, and find out how many doses you need of each one, as well as whether they are a one-off or an annual necessity.  

There’s no denying that aging takes a toll on your body, and your immune system can feel like just another casualty as you get older. But, while you can’t reverse the aging process, you can take steps to keep your immune system as strong as possible – so, when prepping for the winter months ahead, don’t forget to include boosting your immune system on your list of things to do!

The Hidden Problem of Seniors and Alcohol Abuse

We’re heading into what, for some, is the most wonderful time of the year; for others, though, it can be the most stressful, or even the loneliest. It’s also the time of year when some people will be enjoying a few drinks with friends at dinners and parties, while others will turn to alcohol use as a way to escape, including older adults, who can be just as prone to alcohol abuse as younger people, although we often don’t seem to recognize that this is a problem in our country. So how big of a problem is alcohol abuse among seniors, how do you know if you or your loved one has a problem, and what can you do?

How Big Is the Problem?

It seems like it’s hard for us as a society to acknowledge that older adults – our parents, grandparents, or peers who we grew up with – are just as vulnerable to abusing alcohol as anyone else, but it’s true. In fact, most estimates from earlier than 2020 put the number of seniors battling alcohol abuse at around 3 million, and that number was expected to rise to nearly 6 million after 2020. In addition, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) says that alcohol abuse affects up to 17% of adults over the age of 60. 

man drinking a glass of wine next to a woman
Research shows that a third of older adults are “situational” drinkers who have turned to alcohol later in life.

To break that down further, and to put it all into stark relief, consider this: a large survey published in 2007 that looked at data from a number of hospitals, found that 24% of people over 65 binge drank, and almost 8% exceeded the NIAAA guideline for seniors that suggest they should have no more than seven alcoholic beverages in a week. Not only that, but another survey found that almost as many seniors are admitted to acute care hospitals for alcohol-related conditions as they are for heart attacks.

It’s also important to point out that, while two-thirds of older adults who are abusing alcohol have been doing so for a very long time, a full third of them are “situational” drinkers who have turned to alcohol later in life, who might turn to drinking because of the life changes that come with aging, like bereavement, illness, disability, and retirement. And, while men in general are more likely to abuse alcohol, it turns out that women are especially vulnerable to developing drinking problems later in life, problems which will often cause physical issues like liver damage, hypertension, anemia, and malnutrition much more quickly (and with less alcohol consumption) than for older men.

Is Alcohol Abuse Worse for Older Adults?

To pick up on our last point above about the physical problems that accompany heavy drinking, we should add that alcohol abuse is especially harmful for people over 60, no matter their gender. Why? Well, first of all, if you’re over 60, you might have noticed that alcohol has a different effect on you now than when you were younger. This is because as we age, our bodies don’t metabolize and excrete alcohol as efficiently, so you’ll find that you get more intoxicated and stay that way for longer. For this reason, the NIAAA recommends that people over 65 consume no more than one alcoholic drink per day.

So, if you’re more affected by alcohol the older you are, the next concerning thing about drinking too much is its effect on your alertness, judgment, coordination, and reaction time. It can also  contribute to falls and accidents, which can be very serious for older adults. And that’s not all. Heavy drinking can: 

  • Make it harder to diagnose certain conditions: for example, alcohol can cause changes in the heart and blood vessels, dull pain that could be the sign of a heart attack, and even cause symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Interact with many medications, either heightening the effects of them, or reducing their effectiveness. In addition, mixing alcohol with some drugs, like painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, or sleeping pills can be very dangerous, or even fatal. 
  • Have serious effects on the brain, central nervous system, liver, heart, kidneys, and stomach.

Recognizing the Signs

So if alcohol abuse is so physically dangerous for older adults, not to mention the fact that it is a sign of mental distress that needs to be addressed, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs that you or a loved one have a problem. That can be difficult to do, because older adults often live more isolated lives than younger adults, but the following signs can help you to determine that it’s time to get help:woman sitting next to man pouring her a glass of wine with her fingers pinching a size

  • Feeling guilty about your drinking
  • Frequently having more than one drink a night
  • Lying about or hiding your drinking
  • Loss of interest in food, or in things you once enjoyed
  • Developing medical, financial, or social problems because of your drinking
  • Drinking to reduce anxiety or depression, forget your problems, or steady your nerves
  • Feeling irritable when you can’t drink
  • Getting annoyed because others criticize your drinking

Remember, some older adults have been living with a drinking problem for much of their adult lives, but others develop an issue later in life because of loneliness, boredom, grief, and the very real stress that can come with aging. If you or a loved one are feeling overwhelmed with financial problems, loss, chronic pain, taking care of a sick spouse, or anything else, it can be easy to try to drink the feelings that go along with these issues away – but there is help out there if you or a loved one needs help.

What Can You Do? 

If you are concerned about a loved one’s drinking, it’s important to speak to them about it: acknowledge the difficulties they are going through that could have led them to start drinking in the first place, and encourage them to get help in the form of a treatment program or support group. If things are really bad, you should consider staging an intervention with a professional counselor. Hearing your concern and knowing they have your support can be very powerful motivating factors for seniors: in fact, around 90% of individuals who have undergone a professionally staged intervention commit to seeking treatment.

If you are concerned about your own drinking, know that there are countless alcohol-related programs that are designed specifically for seniors, and that it’s never too late to get help. You can look into the following approaches to dealing with alcohol abuse as an older adult: hands grabbing each others wrist forming a circle

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Support groups
  • Individual counseling
  • Medical/psychiatric programs
  • Family therapy
  • Case Management/community-linked services and outreach

Alcohol is a big problem among older adults – probably bigger than a lot of us realize – but the first step to improving lives is recognizing that something needs to be done. So, if you see yourself or a loved one in the signs above, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the NIAAA or a trusted medical professional for ideas on where to start getting help. Remember, no one is ever too old to make improvements to their life and health, and doing that might mean confronting issues with alcohol use. 

Can Regular Sex Increase Your Lifespan?

It’s one of those stereotypes about aging that just won’t go away: sex isn’t – or even shouldn’t be- a big part of older adults’ lives. But you know that nothing could be further from the truth! While your sex life might change as you get older, and there might be new challenges surrounding it, that doesn’t mean that sex can’t still be an important (and fun) part of your life – and you know what? It turns out there’s one more good reason to make regular sex a part of your life (as if you needed one): it could help you live longer. Yep, you read that right – a recent study suggests that having sex can increase your lifespan. So how can sex equal a longer life, and how often do you have to get down to it to reap the benefits? 

Forget Laughter, Sex Might Be the Best Medicine

blood pressure cuff on someone's wrist
Having sex regularly has many benefits, such as lowering your blood pressure.

Researchers have been studying the benefits of sex for a long time, and some of their findings are, well, less than surprising. Sex can boost your mood, ease stress, and improve your mental well-being, not to mention strengthen your relationships; anyone who has a healthy sex life can tell you all that, though! But what might be more surprising is what we’ve been finding out more recently about what sex can do for you physically – and we don’t just mean that it’s great exercise (which it is). Some of the more surprising findings about sex and our physical health include that it:

  • Boosts your immune system – People who have sex more often have been found to have more of a certain antibody that wards off germs and viruses.
  • Lowers your blood pressure
  • Reduces risk of heart attack – In one study, men who had sex at least twice a week were half as likely to die of heart disease as men who had sex rarely.
  • Lessens pain – Got arthritis? An orgasm can help with that: having one releases a hormone that helps raise your pain threshold.

While all of the above is great news for your health, and can certainly help you live a longer, healthier, happier life, there’s now a more concrete reason to believe that more sex could equal more candles on your birthday cake: a 2017 study that discovered the benefits of sex on your body at the cellular level.

What’s DNA Got to Do With It? 

You’re more than likely familiar with chromosomes and the DNA that they are made of, but have you ever heard of telomeres? Before we can get into how sex can increase your lifespan, we’ve got to talk a little bit about these proteins, which live in a cell’s nucleus and act almost like protective “caps” on the ends of your chromosomes. As you age, you begin to lose these protective protein “caps”: each time a cell reproduces, or when it is put under stress, it loses more telomeres, meaning your important chromosomes get shorter and shorter until there’s no protection for your genetic material left. Think of it like this: if your hair had terrible split ends, which were only getting worse as you brushed and pulled at your hair, you’d eventually lose more than just the ends of your hair. DNA sequence in white

So when it comes to telomeres, size does matter: as our telomeres shorten, more and more cells get damaged and are less able to perform their functions in the body, and shorter telomeres are linked to serious health issues like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. In fact, scientists are now speculating that these tiny little proteins and their disappearing act might actually be what triggers the aging process, and that they might even be the culprits behind the inevitable end of our lives. Unfortunately, we can’t just take a drug that reverses this process, because interfering with telomerase, the enzyme that participates in the destruction of telomeres, would dramatically increase the risk of developing cancer. 

But that’s where the 2017 study mentioned above comes in: both emotional and physical intimacy might actually be a far more pleasant way to slow the shortening of your telomeres and keep you healthier, longer. 

The Study

The researchers who conducted the study, University of California San Francisco’s Tomás Cabeza de Baca and his colleagues, started with the idea that social support and good relationships are good for your telomeres, but they wanted to go a step further and check out whether sexual activity had an impact on telomere length and telomerase levels. To that end, the researchers tracked the sex lives of 129 women, asking them to give daily reports on their satisfaction with their relationships, how often they were intimate with their partners, and analyzing samples of their blood to check their cell health.

older couple laying in bed together smiling.
More frequent sex can indicate that someone is in fulfilling relationship, which can help slow down the aging process.

What they found was surprising. Even after accounting for a number of factors, the only measured factor that seemed to have a consistently positive impact on telomere length was having sex at least once in the previous week! Not even the quality of the women’s relationships seemed to make much of a difference: as long as they were having regular sex, their telomeres tended to be longer.

While these are some pretty exciting findings, scientists aren’t necessarily saying you should run out and have as much sex as possible (although we’re also not saying you shouldn’t…). What they are suggesting is that it’s possible that having sex regularly might have protective benefits for your telomeres because it helps keep stress levels down, as well as stimulates the feel-good hormone oxytocin. They also point out that more frequent sex could indicate that someone is in fulfilling relationship, which is helping to boost their health and slow down the aging process – it’s sort of like the chicken and egg scenario: which came first? 

And while this study might not be totally definitive (the researchers even point out that it might be more about correlation than causation), it is the first of its kind to look not just at how relationships can affect the aging process, but how sex specifically can help keep you feeling younger for longer. But the researchers still stress that all sorts of connections with other people can go hand-in-hand with physical intimacy to keep you feeling younger, healthier, and more fulfilled as you age. Just remember, don’t feel like you have to push yourself to have sex everyday! If you have a partner who you enjoy being intimate with, don’t shy away from getting your romance on when the mood strikes: it could keep you both together for longer!

When to Worry About Your Worrying: Coping with Anxiety As You Age

When it comes to our health, it can be so much easier to talk about what’s ailing us physically than what is bothering us mentally. But mental health for older adults is something that needs to be addressed, because no age group is immune to these issues. In fact, with the many changes both physical and emotional that come with aging, psychological issues like anxiety can become more of a problem. It’s important to recognize what is just normal worrying and what is anxiety, as well as to find ways to relieve the feelings of anxiousness you might be experiencing.

Anxiety and Older Adults

For those dealing with any kind of mental health concern, you are certainly not alone, especially if you are an older adult. According to the World Health Organization, mental health issues affect approximately 15% of the population over the age of 60, and, according to the CDC, about 20% of the population over the age of 55. When it comes to anxiety, nearly 4% of older adults in the U.S. are affected. 

diabetes glucose checker and a needle with strips
Chronic conditions such as diabetes is a risk factor for anxiety.

The risk factors for anxiety in older adults include:

  • General feelings of poor health
  • Sleep problems
  • Chronic physical conditions, such as COPD, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease
  • Taking medications with psychological side effects
  • Physical impairments that affect everyday life
  • Traumatic or difficult childhood
  • Stressful life events, like the death of a spouse or a diagnosis of a serious medical condition

It’s clear that anxiety is a widespread problem, and, with that long list of risk factors, it’s also clear that anxiety can end up being a problem for many older adults. But it can be tough for some people to talk about, perhaps because there is still a stigma surrounding mental health issues, or maybe because you might be very focused on communicating the physical problems you might be experiencing. Whatever the case, there’s no need to brush off feelings of anxiety. In fact, you should know how to identify it so you can move forward and begin feeling better. 

Is It Anxiety?

So how do we actually define anxiety, and what should you be looking out for? Well, while it’s completely normal to be anxious sometimes, you could have an anxiety disorder if you frequently and persistently experience intense feelings of tension or worry that interfere with your well-being, and that even sometimes cause negative physical reactions such as increased blood pressure. The specific signs of anxiety are varied, and can include:

silhouette of a head with the brain part of the head disintegrating.
Anxiety can lead to memory issues and struggles with focusing and concentration.
  • Having irrational fears or experiencing excessive worry
  • Suffering from panic attacks
  • Avoiding social situations or feeling like you want to isolate yourself
  • Being uncharacteristically angry, aggressive, or irritable
  • Feeling very restless
  • Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Feeling extremely fatigued
  • Struggling with focus and concentration
  • Having memory issues

Finding Relief

If any of the above sounds like you, the first step is acknowledging what you are experiencing and even naming it for what it is. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel! And then, when you’re ready, consider speaking to a mental health professional. In addition to that, though, you can try some coping strategies to help you find relief from your anxiety. Start by practicing some basic self-care; namely, make sure you’re eating right, getting some exercise that you enjoy, and finding ways to laugh every day. Then, try out some different strategies and see if any of the following works for you:

  • Keeping it consistent – There’s a lot to be said for sticking to a routine, especially when anxiety rears its ugly head. Sure, there are times when the normalcy of doing all those mundane tasks in the same order – getting up, getting your coffee, reading the paper, texting a loved one, showering, etc – can get old or boring, but that’s not always the case when you’re feeling extra anxious. At these times, a set list of daily tasks can bring a much needed sense of calm and comfort. And when you’re feeling a bit more like yourself, then you can be ready to shake things up! 
  • Getting your relaxation on – You might also need to add something extra into your daily routine: some exercises to calm the mind. It can be exercise in the literal, physical sense, like yoga or Tai Chi, both of which can calm your mind, increase respiration, and lower blood pressure; or, it can be as simple as listening to soothing music, following a relaxation app, or just sitting and doing breathing exercises. 
  • Putting things in perspective – For many people, anxiety can distort their sense of reality, meaning that little setbacks or negative interactions can take on epic proportions in their minds. If this happens to you, try to take a step back and put things in perspective – put that one negative thing next to the rest of your day, week, month, year and see how it really stacks up. Is it as big as you originally thought it was? Probably not. A great way to keep up this practice is by journaling whenever these thoughts invade your headspace; writing it all down can help you to regain perspective, as well as make sense of what triggers these feelings and give you an idea of what helps you move forward each time.

    outcline of a click with clouds and a moon in the background
    Get at least 6-9 hours of sleep every night to help lower anxiety levels.
  • Not skimping on your sleep – Remember, even older adults need 6-9 hours of sleep a night! And not getting enough sleep – or enough good quality sleep – can really make a difference in your anxiety levels. If you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, try some simple strategies like avoiding caffeine in the afternoon/evening, taking screens out of the bedroom and stopping your digital time at least an hour before bedtime, getting more exercise, establishing a soothing bedtime routine, or even talking to your doctor if necessary.
  • Reaching outThis last strategy might just be the most important, and the most effective, other than speaking to a mental health professional. Anxiety can lead to isolation and even depression, so it’s vitally important that you reach out to others and seek some social support as soon as you can when experiencing anxiety. Connecting with friends and family, or even just being around others in general, can go a surprisingly long way toward dissipating those anxious feelings. If you can’t connect in person right now, you still have so many options for seeing friendly faces: try video chatting with apps like FaceTime, Zoom, or WhatsApp or joining an online class (again, yoga is a great option). 

Remember, if you’re experiencing anxiety, don’t suffer alone. Speak to your doctor, reach out to loved ones, and take the time to be good to yourself.

Negative Feelings About Retirement? How to Deal with Those Unexpected Emotions

Retirement. For some, it’s something they’ve been looking forward to for half of their working lives; for others, it’s a necessary evil that they learn to live with. However you felt about retirement before taking the plunge (or being pushed off the edge), you might find that your feelings change as you start to settle into your new lifestyle – you might even find that some unexpected emotions begin to crop up. This is totally normal; after all, retirement is a huge life change! Know that you are not alone in dealing with these issues, and know also that you can find ways to deal with them, and get on the road to a more fulfilling retirement. 

A New Youolder caucasian man with a green sign behind him that says "what's next"

When you were younger, you may have had an idealized view of retirement, or thought of it in a more 20th century way: it’s just something that you do when you hit a certain age. The truth is, retirement is complicated. There are multiple reasons why we do it, both positive and negative – and researchers have found that it’s usually a combination of both. Dissatisfaction with work could be mixed with a desire to spend more time with loved ones, or doing the things that you truly enjoy. You could be forced into retirement because of health issues, or a restructuring of your company. 

Whatever brought you to this point in your life, though, you have to recognize that, in some ways, you may feel like your identity is shifting when you’re no longer working at a long-held job. Sometimes changing our perspective and feeling like a new version of ourselves is liberating and positive, but sometimes, as for many retirees, it can lead to a confusing tangle of emotions. Some people may even experience a delayed reaction: Elizabeth Mokyr Horner, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, found that some retirees experience a “sugar rush” of well-being and life satisfaction directly after retirement, followed by a sharp decline in happiness afterwards. 

What this all means is that you have to look after your psychological well-being just as you would your financial well-being in retirement. You can start by examining the unexpected negative feelings you may be experiencing, and trying to find some creative ways to combat them. 

black and white picture of an older caucasian woman with her face in her hands
Some people will experience a sense of loss as to who they are once they leave their job.

A Sense of Loss

  • What you might be experiencing: As we touched on above, people often link their job with who they are, so you may experience a sense of loss – or even grieving – when you retire. In fact, according to Deana Arnett, senior planning consultant at Rosenthal Wealth Management Group, people “get their identities wrapped up in what they do for a living, and once that’s gone, if there’s not something else there to fill the space, that’s when the depression and dissatisfaction kicks in.” Retirement can also mean the loss of the daily interactions and challenges that were part of your life everyday for many years, and losing those can add to the sadness you feel. 
  • What you can do: The key here is finding and accepting support. This could come from family and friends, a church or religious organization, a therapist, or a support group. Connecting with new people or places can go a long way, especially when combined with reconnecting in meaningful ways to the people and places you already love. You can also try getting creative and writing or journaling about your feelings of loss, or making a memory book. 

Guilt

  • What you may be experiencing: This one may not have been on your radar, but many retirees actually end up feeling guilty in many ways after they retire. “It seems to be a mix of guilt over good fortune (being able to retire comfortably), shirking duties (no longer having to work or be productive), spending money that may be needed for the future (not adequately appreciating money available), and having access to benefits (like Social Security and pensions),” according to Steven M. Albert, PhD, a professor in the department of behavioral and community health sciences and chairman for research and science at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. “It may also involve a kind of survivor guilt – making it to this point intact and with resources, unlike others less fortunate.” You might also feel guilty if you aren’t somehow “making the most of” every second your work-free day.

    illustration of older couple holding shopping bags
    It’s okay to splurge a little without feeling guilty, you just have to budget wisely!
  • What you can do: First of all, give yourself a little grace. You don’t have to spend every second engaged in some sort of meaningful pursuit, or chasing adventure. It’s ok to spend some days binge watching and not bungee jumping! 

Next, if you feel guilty every time you splurge on takeout with your spouse or friends, be proactive. Talk to a financial planner and do an honest, thorough assessment of your finances. Figure out where you can cut or move funds around. Invest wisely. And, if you’re feeling unproductive and uncomfortable about money, there’s no rule saying you can’t look for a part-time job to fill some of your time. 

Finally, if your good fortune suddenly seems like a burden, get out into the community and volunteer! We’ll look at this option a little more closely below. 

Remorse

  • What you might be experiencing: Are you wondering “did I do the right thing?” Buyer’s remorse can be real when you retire, especially if you ended up retiring before you thought you would. Or maybe your remorse is more about what could have been: maybe you feel like you missed an opportunity for career advancement somewhere along the way, or that you didn’t set your financial goals high enough. 
  • What you can do: If it’s buyer’s remorse you’re suffering from, you might simply need a change of perspective. Yes, you gave up working – but did you get something back in return? For example, maybe you have an elderly parent who will no longer be around in 5 years, or grandchildren that are at an age when hanging out with grandma is still the best thing ever. That certainly won’t last! There are pros and cons to everything, and retirement is no different – so try to focus on the pros.

 

On the other hand, if you’re spending your time going over and over in your head what might have been, or what you might have done wrong, then it’s time to move forward. If you feel like you have unfinished business with someone from your working life, try to work it out with them. If you wished you had somehow “done more,” try signing up for classes and furthering your education, or again, look into part-time work. Life doesn’t end at retirement! 

Dissatisfaction

  • What you might be experiencing: Many of us have an idealized view of retirement, but you may end up having your bubble burst. You may simply feel dissatisfied with your retirement: According to Candy Spitz, LCSW, a board-certified life coach at Unlimited Paths based in Church Falls, Virginia, “Sometimes people think, ‘This isn’t what I thought it would be’.” 
  • What you can do: First of all, don’t think about retiring from something, think about retiring to something – a new life, with a new perspective, and new opportunities. If you take away a big part of your life – your career – you need to fill that space. As mentioned above, further education or part-time jobs are great ways to embark on something new. 

older caucasian adults volunteering picking up trash with picks.Another excellent option is to volunteer, which was also one of our ideas for combatting feelings of guilt at your lack of productivity, or at your good fortune. A recent study in the Journal of Aging and Health led by Eva Kahana, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University, found that people living in retirement communities reported higher levels of life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms if they were involved in volunteering. 

Not only can volunteering boost your mental state, but it can also increase your physical health. Researchers have found that older adults who volunteer 200 hours over the course of a year are less likely to develop hypertension than non-volunteers. According to psychologist Sheldon Cohen, PhD, “Volunteering may increase feelings of purpose and meaning in life, and commuting to volunteer sites and activities may also increase physical activity, therefore decreasing hypertension risk. All of these have the potential of improving cardiovascular health.” So if you’re feeling bored, cooped up, and lacking in purpose, volunteerism might be just what you need to get your heart pumping.

The bottom line is, whatever you’re feeling now that you’re retired, it’s normal, and it’s ok. Your life has changed drastically, and you’ll need an adjustment period. Take time to grieve if you need to, find a good support network, and look for what makes life meaningful to you, whether that’s giving back to your community, finding a second chance career, or returning to old passions and hobbies. Your fulfillment will look different from someone else’s, and no one can tell you how to be happy. If you want to binge watch, go ahead! You’ve earned some downtime. And if you want to go bungee jumping, more power to you – just be safe out there!