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Anxiety in older adults: Causes, symptoms and what can help

Learn more about what causes anxiety in older adults, symptoms to be aware of and what can help.

Anxiety in older adults: Causes, symptoms and what can help

Anxiety can happen to anyone at any stage of life. It’s become so prevalent the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently made the recommendation that all adults under the age of 65 get screened for anxiety disorders by their primary care providers. 

Despite the recommendation applying primarily to younger people, anxiety screenings at annual checkups can be a great first step in getting patients of all ages the help they need, says Celeste Labadie, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Colorado.

For seniors, symptoms of anxiety can be minor and subtle — but are still something to pay attention to. “Anxiety can have physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms,” explains Jill Johnson-Young, a licensed clinical social worker. Some early signs of anxiety in elderly people include:

  • Short-temperedness.
  • Becoming withdrawn.
  • Getting snappy. 

If you notice changes like these in your senior loved one’s behavior, anxiety may be the cause. Read on to learn more about what causes anxiety in older adults, symptoms to be aware of and what can help.

“Anxiety can have physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms.”

—Jill Johnson-Young, licensed clinical social worker

Common causes of anxiety in older adults

According to the National Council on Aging, anxiety disorders affect around 4% of older adults. However, it’s believed that many more seniors suffer from anxiety but are hesitant to seek help. 

Getting older inevitably comes with change, which can be especially hard for seniors who may have lived in one place for their entire lives and become accustomed to a certain routine. A few life circumstances that can spur anxiety in older adults:

End-of-life worries 

End-of-life worries can be a big stressor for seniors. Worrying about whether or not they’ll have enough money, if they’ll be cared for and if they’ll die alone can all contribute to anxiety in elderly loved ones, says Labadie.


Having to move — potentially for financial or caregiving reasons — is also a common cause of anxiety. As Johnson-Young explains, having to relocate can mean saying goodbye to friends, neighbors and acquaintances that have become an important part of a senior’s support system.

Experiencing the passing of their peers

Moving into the years when seniors are the “last ones” among their friends, organizations and peers can be distressing. This also means that the support system they’ve relied on for many years may no longer be available to them as people pass on, which is something Labadie says can contribute to anxiety as well. 

“When they have friendship groups that get smaller, it gets harder to feel like they have people to talk to or understand them,” she explains.

What are the symptoms of anxiety in older adults? 

Symptoms of anxiety in elderly loved ones can vary. Anxiety may cause seniors to choose to be alone more, to stay in and not accept invitations to socialize, notes Labadie. A few common symptoms include:

  • Frequent pacing
  • Not paying attention to bills or other obligations
  • Not wanting to leave home
  • Inability to sleep
  • Fatigue and muscle aches
  • Short-temperedness/irritability
  • Memory issues
  • Confusion
  • Obsessive thoughts and constant worrying
  • A loss or change in appetite

For Leah Montani, an author, creativity coach and artist who provides care to her aging in-laws, one early indicator was her mother-in-law’s rumination when deviating from her normal routine. “When we would have an event coming up, it was very important for my mother-in-law to have a plan in place for her eating, and she would ask a lot of questions about what would be available and how long we would be,” she says.

Both in-laws require advanced preparation when leaving the house due to anxiety about going somewhere unfamiliar. “My father-in-law needs to be at least two to three hours early wherever he is going,” she says.

“Don’t try to change them or their thoughts.”

—Celeste Labadie, licensed marriage and family therapist

Ways older adults can address anxiety

Getting help for seniors with anxiety can be easier said than done. “Seniors have lived long lives, usually with some degree of independence and a sense of accomplishment for what they have done with their lives,” points out Johnson-Young. 

Here are a few ways to help older adults with anxiety.

Invite them to share their feelings

Encouraging your senior loved one to express their feelings and concerns with you can be a powerful first step. “Don’t try to change them or their thoughts,” says Labadie, but instead, validate their concerns, and let them know they don’t have to face these worries alone.

Identify ways to help with worries

Taking the time to understand what issues are commonly causing anxiety and concern for your elderly loved one helps inform how to best support them. Help with finances, help with housing, and help to outsource tasks they feel anxious about (either through taking them on yourself or with help from a paid caregiver) are all things that Johnson-Young says can help seniors feel more confident and less anxious.

Build and maintain social connections

Isolation can cause and exacerbate feelings of anxiety in the elderly, which is why Labadie says finding opportunities for connection is so important for seniors. Have a reading group or get outside with a caregiver, as nature and fresh air and sun helps to enliven the spirit, recommends Labadie. She adds, “It’s important to keep friendships going and making new ones, especially with younger people if possible.”

Hiring a companion caregiver to spend time with your senior loved one can help mitigate feelings of loneliness while helping support them with tasks and errands. 

Do what you can to help your older loved one stay focused on the present

Worrying about what will happen in the future is easy to do when you have nothing to focus on in the present moment. For Montani, keeping her mother-in-law present by engaging her with creative projects has helped tremendously. She says that creative pursuits were incredibly useful for calming her nerves. Coloring, drawing, painting or writing brought her MIL into the present and calmed her rumination, says Montani.

Seek help when needed

If your older loved one is suffering from anxiety and needs more help than you’re able to provide, there are plenty of mental health resources that can help. Talk to your senior’s primary care physician about your concerns and the best way to address them.