by William Van Ornum, Ph.D. on
For almost all of us, phobias are unwelcome visitors as we age. One researcher even calls them “the silent geriatric giant.” How common are these anxiety disorders later in life? Another researcher estimates that the prevalence for phobias in old age is 5 to 6 percent of the population. The number, however, doesn’t tell how many “new phobias” occur during aging. Making things even more difficult to untangle is the fact that old-age phobias are often accompanied by dementia or delirium, or even brain tumors or cerebral-vascular accidents.
Social phobias may affect 3 to 5 percent of the elderly and can be especially debilitating since they add to social isolation that might be present. When there is suspicion of this condition, it is always important to look into the possibility of alcohol abuse, a sad and ineffective way of self-medication.
Geriatrics and Aging, an important book published in 2008, notes that agoraphobia may be the most frequent “new phobia” diagnosed in old age. This can be especially debilitating since the older person stops much of his or her activity. This can diminish physical functioning, leading to even more fearfulness and isolation.
So-called fear of falling is another phobia occurring in older citizens, as is noted in a recent article in the Journal of Gerontology. When I think about this one, I wonder how much these fears may be kindled when someone near and dear falls and becomes seriously injured. A slip could lead to a hip-replacement.
We at AMHF make mental health in old age one of our key concerns. We believe many phobias among the elderly are merely shrugged off. “Grandma is just getting old. She doesn’t want to go shopping anymore.” “Grandpa doesn’t need much sleep these days.” We do not recognize the terror Grandma experiences when she gets near the door to leave, or the inner trembling Grandpa cannot shake as he recalls how his beloved wife of 55 years had died in her sleep.
All of us, from mental-health professionals to caring family members, need to listen with that “third ear” to recognize the fearfulness that goes beyond “the normal aging process” to present a mental-health condition that can be diagnosed and treated.