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Behavior and Emotions of Aging

Are you interested in learning more about the behavior and emotions of aging?

In this education module, we review common changes that may take place in later life and the importance of cultivating a positive attitude for successful aging. Included is a review of what you can do as a caregiver to support and encourage healthy and independent aging. Behavior and Emotions of Aging [1]

Topic Quick Links – Click on a topic below to go to that area of the page.

The Process of Aging

Aging is another stage of life, like childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood. People age differently and experience aging differently based on heredity, lifestyle, and attitudes. Aging means change – physical, psychological, relationships, social, environment, situation, behavior, spiritual, and intellectual. Everyone adjusts to aging differently. People who did not like change when they were younger don’t generally like it any better as they age. Chances are good that a demanding 80-year-old was a demanding 35-year-old. So the best way to predict how an older person will act is to look back at her behavior in earlier life.

The challenge for older adults (and their caregivers) is accepting and adjusting to changes to build “resilience.”

Change and Loss 

Aging is a process of adjusting to continual changes. The changes that many older adults experience can affect how they see their lives. Many feel that they have lost their independence. They may experience a loss of self-esteem and may lose a clear image of who they are at this time in their lives. So many changes and adjustments can lead to a lack of confidence in one’s ability to live a meaningful life and continue to make valuable contributions to the community.  Older adults may also experience a sense of loss of the respect of others. Common factors that trigger stress from change or loss:

Responses to Loss or Change

We all have different ways of coping with loss and change. If we’ve adjusted easily to change during the first 50 years of our lives, we’re likely to be able to adjust easily during the next 50 years. On the other hand, if we’ve resisted change throughout our lives, we will probably continue doing so and experience negative effects that may include the following:

Grief & Grief Stages 

Both older adults AND family caregivers experience grief.  Different people experience grief and loss in different ways.

Groundbreaking research on death and dying by Elizabeth Kubler Ross identified stages of grief that are now recognized as normal for any type of loss or change. The grieving process does not take place in steps but in cycles. People move in and out of the following stages at their own pace.

Other reactions to grief can include:

Signs and Symptoms Suggesting Depression 

Depression is more than an occasional feeling of sadness or the natural grief associated with a loss. It is a group of long-lasting or recurring emotions and behaviors that interfere with a person’s normal activities. If you or someone you know has experienced several of the following signs of depression for two weeks or more, professional help should be considered:

Possible Causes of Depression   

Treatment of Depression  

Depression is one of the most successfully treated illnesses, usually with medication. When properly diagnosed and treated, more than 80% improve. Untreated, depression is likely to persist and may cause:

Medications frequently prescribed include the serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs): Zoloft, Paxil and other anti-depressants. These medications have fewer side effects that many older medications.

Suicide Rates and Older Adults 

As many as 70% of older persons who completed suicide visited their primary care doctor within the previous four weeks. As many of 40% saw a doctor within the week before the suicide.

There are some suicide trends based on gender or race/ethnicity:

Recognizing the “Red Flags” of Suicide and Accessing the Risk of Suicide 

These factors can be red flags warning of potential for suicide if they are a pattern of behavior over a period of time:

Recognize Signs, Involve a Doctor, Get Treatment 

Don’t accept that depression is normal as people grow older.  Get help! Talk to a health care professional.:

Find support systems from friends, family and the community.

Behavioral Changes and What to Do

Changes in a person’s usual behavior and routine can indicate a change in health and mental status.  Be observant and think about what the behavior may mean. Take some practical steps:

Then ask for help from other family members, church volunteers, neighbors, or other people who have offered to help.

Difficult Behaviors
These are some examples of difficult behaviors you might encounter:

Possible Causes of Difficult Behaviors and How to Cope

Look for the cause of the behavior, including major changes and losses:

Is It Normal Aging? or Dementia? or Alzheimer’s Disease?

These changes are part of the normal aging process. The age of loss varies with individuals, but generally there is not much loss before the age of 70.

These changes can be affected by poor nutrition, lifelong stress, or other illnesses, such as Parkinson’s disease, depression, or alcoholism.

Dementia is a neurological disorder that causes general and progressive problems affecting memory, ability to learn new information, communication, judgment and coordination.

Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes injury to nerve cells in the brain. It results in disrupted memory, thinking and functioning.

How Caregivers Help Older Adults

Caregivers can help older adults remain as independent and self-sufficient as possible as long as possible by

Resources for Caregivers

Use resources such as Area Agency on Aging [17] (AAA). Types of assistance provided by AAAs:

Assistance available through AAAs for persons age 60 and older may include:

Be sure to check out our Resource Directory [18], FAQ [19], and Educational Events Calendar [20] for more great information! Permission is granted to duplicate any and all parts of this page to use in education programs supporting family members caring for elders. 

Revised 2021

We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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