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Lifestyles over 50

Tips for Coping with Stress

Jan 19, 2023 12:32PM ● By Mary DeHaven, St. Luke's University Health Network
In 1789, Pennsylvania’s own founding father, Benjamin Franklin, wrote that “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” But there’s something else you can count on—stress. While its causes may change over time, stress persists.

Psychotherapist Patricia Fox of St. Luke’s Behavioral Health Integration program said stressors for people over 50 vary depending on their age and life circumstances. However, many common sources of stress include
  • retirement
  • health issues
  • caring or concern for elderly parents, adult children or grandchildren
  • loss of friends and loved ones
  • financial concerns
  • inability to do things you once enjoyed
  • age discrimination
  • loss of position or status
Retirement creates its own set of stressors, she said. Many people miss their daily routine. Some experience a loss of purpose. Others mourn the loss of their “work family” and the relationships they built over years or even decades. Fox encourages patients to try to maintain relationships with former co-workers.

“I know a woman who retired from a bank,” Fox said. “She still makes cookies and goes and visits with her former coworkers at the bank once a week because ‘those were her people.’” Some married couples, even those who have been married for many years, find retirement offers a little too much togetherness.

“During COVID, many people spent a lot of time alone with their spouse and got a taste of what retirement will bring,” she said. “Some found out that they didn’t love spending time with their partner; they didn’t even like it.”

She recommends people maintain their autonomy so that when it comes to retirement, their whole world doesn’t revolve around their spouse. Instead, find activities you enjoy. For example, Fox loves hiking, running, and walking. While her spouse likes hunting, he generally prefers more sedentary activities.

Caregiving is another common source of stress for older adults, whether caring for aging parents or adult children and grandchildren. She reminds her patients that “adult children and parents are adults. Unless they’re deemed incompetent, they’re capable of making their own decisions. Sometimes, there are consequences for those decisions. They might be good or not so good, but there are consequences. And you can’t be responsible for the results of the decisions of another adult human being, whether you gave birth to them or they gave birth to you. Making that separation is part of self-care.”

When parents need help caring for themselves, it can create a challenging role reversal, and it’s important not to treat aging parents like children. While you should respect their decisions, you don’t have to do everything yourself. You may need to seek outside help, such as your county’s office of the Area Agency on Aging.

“It’s a tightrope you have to walk because, in their mind, they’re still the parent,” she said. “Like, when my mom was still alive, I was her preferred person, and I had to continually remind myself that I was doing the best I could do based on her decisions.” Fox’s mother, who resided in another state, wanted to live in her own apartment. Fox visited her on weekends but couldn’t be there every night and still keep her job.

“You don’t have to be a superhero,” she said. “You’re not responsible for your parents’ happiness, but you are responsible for helping them get the help they need. You’re not responsible for anybody’s happiness other than your own.”

Meanwhile, everyone should watch for warning signs that a loved one might be suffering from the stress of their life situation and try to intervene by encouraging them to get professional counseling.

Fox said, “I had a 90-year-old patient who was in a wheelchair. She had been diagnosed with leukemia and was undergoing chemotherapy. And she’s said, "What is my purpose here?" So, I got her to open up. I asked her, 'How much does your husband love you? How much do your children love you and your grandchildren? You have a great grandbaby on the way.' When people question their value, a simple reminder can mean a lot. Remind them that they mean a lot to you and that you’re so glad they’re here.”

Six strategies for reducing stress to preserve your heart health
A small amount of stress can be healthy, motivating you to meet deadlines and cross things off your to-do list. But research shows that chronic stress can be just as unhealthy as eating a high-fat diet and having a sedentary lifestyle.

The behavioral health professionals at St. Luke’s Penn Foundation discuss six strategies for reducing stress to preserve your heart health.
Here are six strategies for reducing your stress to preserve your heart health.

Breathe When you are stressed out, watch your breath. Focusing on your breathing directs your attention away from what’s making you feel overwhelmed. According to the American Heart Association, breathing exercises can reduce heart disease risk. Deep breathing can get you back to a less inflammatory state.
Take phone breaks Don’t scroll through your phone when you are waiting in line at the grocery store. Instead, stand there and give your brain a break. Our brains need natural rest periods throughout the day to recoup and face the next challenge or situation.
Create a schedule To help reduce the low-level stressors that most often affect you, reflect on what triggers you the most and plan. For example, if cooking dinner during the week causes you stress, try planning a weekly menu on Sunday night. The 10 minutes it takes you to plan your menu for the week might be just the key to calmer weekday evenings.
Prioritize your to-do list If you feel pressure to accomplish every task on your to-do list as soon as possible, create two separate lists—one for items that need to be done right away and one for items that can wait.
Exercise your options You’ve probably heard quite often that exercise is a great way to reduce stress. Physical activity releases endorphins, feel-good brain chemicals that help you feel calm and sleep better, which in turn helps lower or eliminate stress. Make sure to pick activities you enjoy so you are more likely to stick with them. In a moment of intense stress, try moving fast for one minute—jog in place, move from one foot to the other, or shake your hands in the air. This will get you out of your brain and focused on your physical body.
Focus on having more fun The more you take care of yourself and experience pleasure, the better you will be able to handle stressful situations when they come your way. Consider the stressful parts of your day and find ways to make them more enjoyable. For example, if you have a long commute to work, try listening to the audio version of a book you’ve always wanted to read or update your playlist to include your favorite songs.

There are many tools for reducing stress; you must find what works best for you. Remember, you have the power within you to find your inner calm.