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Living during these stressful times

Editor’s Note

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.

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These are stressful times. Our lives have been changed drastically by the novel coronavirus in past few weeks. Not only are we forced to stay home and avoid social interaction in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, but stay-at-home orders and the state-mandated closure of many businesses have thrown the economy into turmoil. For many, the health scare created by COVID-19 has been compounded by an uncertain financial future.

While these stresses are felt by young and old alike, such circumstances can be especially stressful for older adults, who are among those populations most vulnerable to the disease. Although our bodies each handle stress in their own ways, older adults often find their bodies cope with stress differently than they did when they were young. They often have a harder time dealing with the physical and psychological effects of stressful situations.

As we age the decline in the functioning of our hearts and lungs affects the way our bodies react to perceived stressors. The stress response is triggered when the brain perceives something as a danger and senses the need to either fight or get away. In addition to tightening our muscles, the brain tells our adrenal glands to release hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which increase our breathing and heart rate in order to get more oxygen to our muscles.

A lack of adequate sleep, similar to that often experienced by seniors, can prevent our brains from flushing out those stress hormones. Unfortunately, too much stress can also be a key factor in keeping older adults from getting a good night’s sleep, sometimes leading to impaired cognitive ability and a decline in brain function.

The chronic diseases that often accompany the aging process make it even more difficult for the body to return to normal functioning once the situation which triggered the stress response has passed.

In addition to interfering with sleep, prolonged stress can affect a person’s appetite and their ability to concentrate. It can result in tension headaches and heart palpitations, and it can lead to feelings of anxiety, fear, irritability and anger.

Older adults feeling overwhelmed by stress should share those concerns with friends or family members. If the person isn’t able to cope with their stress by talking through those strong emotions, a medical exam may be in order. Often, underlying health causes such as high blood pressure can be a contributing factor.

Most nonmedical techniques for dealing with stress are aimed at getting the body to relax, and thereby lowering breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. Exercise, along with a healthy diet, is often promoted as one of the keys to managing stress. Even mild physical activity releases endorphins, which improve mood and promote a sense of well-being. Meditation, breathing exercises and yoga, which help a person regulate their breathing and heart rate, have also been successful for reducing stress.

In some cases, talking the situation through with a psychologist or psychiatrist can help an individual identify the reasons why they are feeling stressed and help them replace those feelings with positive emotions. Even during this time of social distancing, efforts are being made to continue consultations with mental health professionals through phone and video communications.

Animals and pets have long been known to help relieve stress and treat anxiety. Research has indicated that having a pet around can help reduce blood pressure, and hospitals and facilities have used pet therapy to treat those suffering from anxiety and depression. These positive effects are not just associated with dogs and cats. Other animals, from guinea pigs to horses, have been shown to reduce stress.

More advice for handling stress and anxiety, especially stress arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, can be found at the Ohio Department of Health’s coronavirus website, coronavirus.ohio.gov, and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, www.cdc.gov .

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Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines and familiar surroundings.

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