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. 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.
Psychological stress occurs at every age. Several sources of stress, however, are either unique to or more common in the elderly. Seniors may fear the loss of: control over their lives and environmentphysical strength and coordinationa sense of purpose and productivityindependencememory and other thinking processesfriends and relatives through death or social isolation
The age of retirement from active income-producing work in the United States varies widely, but many people are now working past age 70. With the rapid pace of technology in the workplace, it can be stressful for elderly people to compete with their younger coworkers. Seniors 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 also lose privacy and control over daily life. Losing a life that is familiar and facing an unsure new environment may make the elder may feel abandoned and may even lead to depression.
The death of a spouse is a common event in the life of an elderly person and is seen as one of the single greatest losses an individual can experience. It results in the loss of security and companionship. In addition, nuclear and extended family ties are not as strong as in past generations and may result in an elderly person having no family members nearby. Adult children may be busy with their own lives and families and may not be available to help an aging 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, and some even provide for pets to live in the facility with the person.
Long term stress increases the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, digestive problems, and sleep disorders, conditions for which an older person is already at greater risk. Many times illness, change of location, and the loss of a spouse may occur at about the same time and be too much for a person to deal with. In these instances, the healthcare professional caring for the individual should watch for signs of depression, such as crying, withdrawal, or unexplained pain.
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 mental health provider. Religious involvement has also been shown to reduce stress among older adults.
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Hales, Robert, Textbook of Psychiatry, 2nd edition 1994
Stuart and Sundeen, Principles and Practice of Psychiatric Nursing: 4th edition, 1991