By Kayt Sukel
After a minor fender bender, Therese’s mother Angela decided she was done with cars—not only driving her own but even riding in cars as a passenger. Therese found herself at a loss. While she understood the minor car accident had shaken her mother, Angela’s reaction seemed over the top.
“She told me it was far, far too dangerous to consider driving any longer,” Therese said. “And it really surprised me. This was not any kind of bad accident—her car wasn’t even damaged. And Mom’s always been independent. She’s healthy, really together, and only 67 years old. If she stopped driving altogether, it would completely change her life. She’d basically be home bound and bored to death. I couldn’t understand it but I figured she’d stay out of the car for a week and things would go back to normal.”
It did not go back to normal. For more than 8 months, Angela refused to get into any car—for any reason. Later, Therese would learn that her mother had been suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, a common but quite disruptive, mental health disorder where individuals become overly worried or stressed about small, everyday activities. Angela had been having difficulty controlling her worries about all manner of typical events for months before her fender bender, and had also been experiencing sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, and a shaky feeling.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that approximately 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder. Most anxiety disorders begin in adolescence. But recent research suggests that anxiety disorders are highly prevalent in aging populations, particularly in women. In fact, Eric Lenze, M.D., a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, says that anxiety disorders may be twice as prevalent in elderly populations as depression—making it the most common mental health issue in older individuals.
In a 2006 WebMD article, Lenze is quoted as saying:
“Doctors often think that this disorder is rare in the elderly or that it is a normal part of aging, so they don’t diagnose or treat anxiety in their older patients, when, in fact, anxiety is quite common in the elderly and can have a serious impact on quality of life.”
Certainly, initially, Therese and Angela’s primary care physician, thought her concerns about driving—as well as her worries about food prices, politics, snow removal, and a variety of other seemingly inconsequential topics—were just a matter of her getting on in years. And, as it so happens, research does support that idea that older adults tend to worry a bit more than younger folks, particularly about finances and health issues. But when worries become excessive, lasting for more than six months, or interfere with day-to-day life, it’s time to get help before an individual’s quality of life deteriorates.
After eight months of not driving, Therese realized that her Mom was not doing well. She was overly worried about too many things, and it was beginning to take a serious toll. She took Angela to see a mental health specialist to get her the help she needed. And she’s glad she did.
“I’m only sorry that I waited so long. Getting her help made such a difference,” says Therese. “I mean, she still worries about me. She tells me she’ll always worry about me. But not to the point where it’s interfering with everything else. She’s finally back to her old self.”