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stress and Aged

Alternative Names 
stress and the elderly

Stress is the wear and tear on the body caused by constant adjustment to an individual's changing environment. Anything that causes change in our life causes stress. There are many changes going on in the lives of the elderly.

Stress can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat. This is commonly known as the "fight or flight" response. The threat can be any situation that is experienced, even subconsciously, as a danger. Under stress, a person's heart rate and breathing increase. His or her muscles become tense. A person's stress level increases when there are multiple stressors present. A person's body needs relief from stress to re-establish balance. As people age, the ability to achieve a relaxation response after a stressful event becomes more difficult. Ageing may simply wear out the systems in the brain that respond to stress.

What is the information for this topic? 
Psychological stress occurs at every age. Several sources of stress, however, are either unique to or more common in the elderly. Ageds may fear the loss of:
  • control over their lives and environment
  • physical strength and co-ordination
  • a sense of purpose and productivity
  • independence
  • memory and other thinking processes
  • friends and relatives through death or social isolation
The retirement age in Australia is now 65, but many people work into their 70s. With the rapid pace of technology in the workplace, it can be stressful for elderly people to compete with their younger coworkers. Ageds may feel pressured to retire sooner than they would have chosen.

A person also faces many changes upon retiring. Income, identity and life-style are all affected. A person living on a fixed income is susceptible to the effects of inflation. People often have spent a lifetime saving for retirement only to find that they cannot make ends meet.

Moving into a skilled nursing facility or extended care facility is one of the top stressors for elderly people. It can mean many types of losses. A person may no longer be able to keep personal belongings. He or she may lose privacy and control over daily life, as well. Losing a life that is familiar and facing an unsure new environment may make the elderly may feel abandoned. The stress from relocating to a care facility often leads to depression.

The loss of a spouse is seen as the single greatest loss an individual can experience. It results in the loss of security and companionship. The nuclear family unit has weakened in the past 20 years. Elderly people may not have family close by. Adult children may be busy with their own lives and family and not available to help an ageing parent.

Sometimes, elderly people can find companionship from animals. Research has shown that having a pet can reduce blood pressure and stress in the elderly. Many nursing homes now allow pets to visit.

Long term stress increases the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, digestive problems, and sleep disorders. An older person is already at greater risk for these conditions. Many times, there are multiple stressors, such as illness, and the loss of a spouse. These multiple stressors may be too much for a person to deal with. This may lead to depression, and the need to seek help from their health care doctor.

People respond to stress in different ways. These may include crying, withdrawal, and depression. It is important to allow an elderly person to maintain as much independence as possible. However, if stress interferes with a person's eating, health, or normal daily activity, he or she should be referred to an appropriate doctor.

Author: Gail Hendrickson, RN, BS
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 11/11/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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