Anxiety is a common struggle at the end of life. As the caregiver for a loved one, you might feel helpless to know what to do about it. Psychiatrists say that death causes what is known as primordial anxiety or death anxiety. Researchers believe it’s something we all have deep within us.
Some believe that death anxiety is inversely proportional to life satisfaction. According to John Hinton in Death, Anxiety and Psychotherapy, “When life had appeared satisfying, dying was less troublesome … lesser satisfaction with past life went with a more troubled view of the illness and its outcome.”
Symptoms of End-of-Life Anxiety
Sometimes the signs of anxiety are easy to spot, such as restlessness and agitation. A person with a life-limiting illness might tug at their clothes, wring their hands or be unable to sit or lie still. Other symptoms that a caregiver might not equate with anxiety could include:
- Anger or aggression
- Lethargy or staring off into the distance
- Inability to focus or engage with loved ones
- Physical discomfort
- Contorted facial expression or grimace
- Being constantly in motion (e.g., moving from the couch to the chair to the bed)
These are just a few of the common behaviors that might indicate someone who is nearing the end of their life is suffering from anxiety.
Managing a Loved One’s End-of-Life Anxiety
If you suspect the symptoms you are witnessing in a loved one are caused by anxiety, a few suggestions for confirming and managing it might be:
- Ask about unmanaged pain: Depending on how well the patient is able to communicate, you might begin by asking if they are in pain. It’s one of the leading causes of anxiety and restlessness in someone who is nearing the end of their life. Don’t assume they aren’t experiencing pain and discomfort because they are taking medication. Despite what many believe, pain can be successfully managed for most people.
- Monitor for shortness of breath: Someone with a life-limiting illness might be having trouble breathing. It’s a frightening feeling and one of the top reasons for anxiety. Sit quietly next to your loved one’s chair or bed and watch their breathing for a few minutes. While their physician or hospice nurse may not be able to change the patient’s breathing, they can prescribe medications that help treat it.
- Offer to contact a chaplain or pastor: Part of the interdisciplinary approach of palliative care and hospice is to treat each individual holistically, focusing on mind, body and spirit. Spiritual care teams help patients find answers to questions like “What was the meaning of my life?” or “What happens to me after I die?” Having a chaplain or pastor visit can help calm the inner turmoil that many people with a life-limiting illness encounter.
- Encourage honest discussion: For some people, it’s the feeling of having unfinished business that might be behind their struggle. A parent might think they need to apologize for being absent from a child’s life growing up. Or a spouse might need to express gratitude and love for a partner who has always supported them. By gently urging them to share their emotions and regrets, you might help them gain peace. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization has some great articles and guides on communicating with your loved one that you might find helpful.
- Explore alternative therapies: As a person grapples with their diagnosis, they may have a hard time understanding and expressing their feelings. Alternative therapies can help with that. Music, massage and animal and art therapy are all options to consider.
- Learn what’s likely to happen next: For some, their anxiety may be caused by not understanding their disease and fear of the unknown. If that turns out to be an issue, ask their physician or hospice provider for assistance. They can share what happens if the disease follows its typical course. Knowing what to expect might make a difference in their anxiety.
Hospice Services at American Senior Communities
While end-of-life can bring a roller coaster of emotions and fear for both patients and their families, working closely with a hospice team can help you manage the ups and downs. Hospice team members are experts at helping patients and their family members find ways to cope. Visit Compassion and Dignity for Those With Terminal Illness to learn more about hospice care at American Senior Communities throughout Indiana or visit our website to find a location near you.