OCD is real, and here are 3 ways you can help

Amy Osmond Cook
Amy Osmond Cook

Imagine this: You’ve lost cherished friends, your health is declining, your adult children have moved away, and you are about to leave the home where you raised your family. Welcome to the world of a senior adult. With so much change, it’s no wonder there is an increase in anxiety in older adults. “In some cases, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. It’s our body’s way [of] coping,” says agingcare.com writer Marlo Sollitto. “But when anxiety becomes an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it crosses the line to become a disabling disorder.” She added an important point: Anxiety is not a normal part of aging.

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?

This anxiety disorder begins with an obsession that expands into a compulsion. For example, Valerie’s mother has always been particular about her bedspread. But soon after moving into an assisted-living apartment, Valerie’s mother began removing and reapplying her bedspread numerous times every morning. “We all have different rituals, but when those behaviors start taking control, it is almost impossible to live a normal life,” says Craig Clayton, administrator at Garden Park Care Center in Garden Grove.

For seniors in particular, OCD is an anxiety disorder that may be related to Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. As such, health care providers take this behavior very seriously. “Fortunately, many people suffering from OCD respond well to medications or therapy, and we encourage family members and close friends to be part of the treatment process by better understanding this disorder and offering support to their loved ones,” says Clayton.

If you suspect your loved one is suffering from OCD, here are three ways to offer help.

Talk about it

Since anxiety and aging are not mutually exclusive, it’s important to discuss your loved one’s feelings. Did something happen? Is there too much change happening at once? Sometimes the very act of voicing concerns can help calm the anxiety that fuels OCD behaviors. Together, you can discuss options.

Be patient

You may be annoyed by a loved one’s fascination with numbers. Remember, though, your loved one feels powerless to this compulsion. OCD is based on unwanted, repetitive thoughts or actions. A little patience can go a long way in offering support to loved ones as they learn to take control over their compulsions.

Be respectful

Arranging her room in a certain way may not seem important to you, but it means a lot to your loved one. “Loss of independence can create tremendous frustration, feelings of uselessness, and sadness, due to a sense of loss of control in one’s life,” say experts at myageingparent.com. Challenging a loved one’s choices can contribute to feelings of anxiety. Respect boundaries and needed space while loved ones learn to better understand their behaviors.

Change is hard, even for the strongest among us. It can trigger OCD and other anxiety disorders. But with open communication, patience, and respect, this new threshold can be a positive and supportive experience.

Amy Osmond Cook is the Executive Director of the Association of Skilled Nursing Providers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about best practices in senior care. Contact her at amy@skillednursingproviders.org.