How I Helped My Aging Mother With Her Increasing Anxiety

How I Helped My Aging Mother With Her Increasing Anxiety

My 86-year-old mother developed pneumonia over the winter break.  Prior to this illness, she was living on her own and still working in a business she had started when she was 60 years old.

After 2 weeks in the hospital and 2 weeks in a recovery facility, physically she was much better but mentally she still needed work.

Her primary issue post physical recovery … Anxiety.

She was anxious about money, anxious about who was going to care for her, anxious about where she was going to live, anxious about her health, anxious that she had messed everything up, etc…

Anxiety is serious and can have severe consequences on physical health. This is particularly true for older people who are vulnerable when their health changes in any way.

For my mother, anxiety was beginning to roll back her physical recovery and potentially to start a downward spiral. Anxiety was preventing her from eating because her stomach is ‘tied in knots’ and making her want to spend the day lying down in bed and not exercising.

Here are the 5 things I did to help her:

1. Journaling

I bought her a notebook and asked her to write down her negative thoughts and any positive thoughts.

  • Jumpy nerves
  • No appetite
  • No finances
  • No confidence
  • Good looking kids
  • Sky is blue

Attached is a link to an article from the University of Rochester Medical Center on journaling for anxiety and mental health. ( ContentID=4552&ContentTypeID=1)

2. Sunlight

My sister pointed out to our mother, who lives in Canada where it is very cold and grey in the winter, that she had not been outside in over 30 days.

This is what happens to plants when exposed to artificial light versus authentic sunlight.

We felt that this lack of sunlight was contributing to her anxiety and decided to move her to south to a warmer, sunnier climate for a month.

Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles, 1969

Here is a link to a study from Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience on the benefits of sunshine for mental health. (

3. Movement

When one is sick and lying down it is very difficult to control the negative thoughts that inevitably creep into your head. My mother was incredibly negative and was having a tough time getting out of bed and didn’t want to walk or move around because it was difficult, and she had lost balance and her confidence.

One of the only times my mother perked up was when I mentioned Dick Van Dyke.

Dick Van Dyke has an excellent new book out on longevity and how life can get better the longer you live it. The book is titled “Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Living Well Longer”. (

“You don’t have to act your age. You don’t even have to feel it. And if it does attempt to elbow its way into your life, you do not have to pay attention. If I am out shopping and hear music playing in a store, I start to dance. If I want to sing, I sing. I read books and get excited about new ideas. I enjoy myself. I don’t think about the way I am supposed to act at my age – or at any age. As far as I know, there is no manual for old age. There is no test you have to pass. There is no way you have to behave. There is no such thing as ‘age appropriate.’ When people ask my secret to staying youthful at an age when getting up and down from your chair on your own is considered an accomplishment, you know what I tell them? ‘Keep moving.’”
– Dick Van Dyke

Here is an interview with Dick, discussing the book:

4. Feeling Important and Needed

In an attempt to motivate my mother, I pointed out to her that while I was perfect, my 50-year-old sister still needed significant parenting.

Surprisingly, my mother and sister disagreed with me and we had a family debate on who needed the most work.

What this did though was to communicate to my mother that she was still needed and valued. There was a reason for her to get better, to get out of bed and to move around and recover her physical and mental strength.

The Dalai Lama, in a recent New York Times Op Ed, wrote:


5. Small goals and take time for big decisions

Given my mother’s illness and weakened physical and mental state it was clear that she was not able to return to her business and living on her own. She needed care and help to manage some of her new physical limitations.

But she was also in good shape and had the potential to get better and return to living a quality life.

Her anxiety though and worry over what was going to happen to her was standing in the way of doing the smaller tasks that she needed to work on to ease the transition into a new life.

One of the first things we did was to set small realistic goals for her to achieve.

Getting out of bed, taking an increasing number of steps, personal care and hygiene were some of things we focused on to give her a sense of accomplishment and get her positioned for the next stage of her life.

Sometimes it is urgent to do nothing.