Gerontophobia, also known as fear of the elderly or aging, causes an intense fear about the concept of age-related degeneration and elderly people. The word Gerontophobia is a combination of two Greek words: geronto meaning old age and phobos meaning fear or aversion. Gerontophobia is often confused with Gerascophobia which is the fear of getting old. In a sense, the two fears are closely related.
The average life expectancy of Americans born in 2019 is nearly 80 years according to statistica. Knowing this number can be anxiety-inducing for Gerontophobes who are approaching this age, but it can also be quite comforting for people who are a lot younger, knowing they statistically have many more years to live. A Gerontophobe not only fears old age, but also fears elderly, frail persons. Many Gerontophobes might avoid nursing homes, hospitals, and the state of Florida where there are more than 46 million Americans over the age of 65. Simply seeing an elderly person can trigger a full blown panic attack in the individual.
Let us study the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for this phobia.
Causes of Gerontophobia
Gerontophobia, like all other phobias, can occur due to a combination of factors.
Aging and mortality
Some people may fear elderly people because they are overly-critical, rejecting, and difficult to understand, or relate to. Others may fear them out of discomfort that comes with aging. Old age is usually linked to mortality or loss of youth. Some may also feel that elderly people have a different smell, are grumpy, hard of hearing, cannot see or walk properly, and are wrinkled and frail. Some use diapers as they have no control over their bladders. A sensitive or overly anxious individual having an extreme fear of death or dying may associate this frailness and sickness with death and that could be one of the causes of the phobia.
In most cases, a traumatic episode in the past may be responsible. A child close to a grandparent may have watched them die, leading to a permanent fear of old age, aging, and, in general, about all elderly people. Abuse by (or unsavory interaction with) an elderly person can also trigger this phobia. Most Gerontophobes cannot recall the exact event which led to their fear.
A combination of genes or heredity paired with chemical imbalance in the brain is also one of the causes of phobias. Some people are simply born with the personality type that worries excessively or is anxious all the time.
Overly anxious parents or caregivers can unknowingly pass on their fears to their wards. For example: a parent may constantly talk about an elderly person’s health problems in front of a child who may then associate old age and elderly with sickness, sorrow, and diseases.
Long-term, untreated stress is also one of the factors of Gerontophobia.
TV, movies and books depicting frail, grumpy old people can also be the root cause of this phobia.
Symptoms of Gerontophobia
Gerontophobes avoid elderly people, hospitals, and nursing homes. They may avoid seeing their elderly relatives. Even the thought of aging or a wrinkled, old man or woman could trigger a panic attack in the individual. Gerontophobes may refuse to watch movies depicting old people.
Here are some common behavior patterns in people who have Gerontophobia:
- Avoiding going to places that have old people.
- Refusing to speak to elderly people and making excuses when it comes to visiting elderly relatives.
- Looking the other way or imagining themselves to be someplace else when confronted with elderly people.
- Depending on alcohol, medicines, or other substances to manage their fears.
When confronted with the thought of meeting an elderly person, the following physical and emotional symptoms may occur:
- Breathing speeds up, nostrils and lungs open wider.
- Heart-rate and blood pressure increase.
- The phobic’s face may appear pale.
- The muscles tense up, preparing the body for fight or flight response.
- Body starts sweating (as it has to cool itself down after over-heating).
- The phobic’s mind is thinking of one and one thing only: ‘how do I escape this situation?’ As a result, they may become disconnected with reality and may appear dazed, confused or preoccupied.
- Digestion is put on hold: the mouth dries up as saliva production halts. Nausea and vomiting are also some of the symptoms of a panic attack.
- Thoughts of death or dying keep repeating in the phobic’s mind.
Not all phobics experience these symptoms to this degree, since this panic response is controlled by the involuntary nervous system. Gerontophobes may be ridiculed for such display of fear. As a result, many tend to avoid elderly people, which can impact their relationships.
Treatment for fear of the elderly or aging
Deep breathing in the presence of elderly people can help a phobic convert fearful, negative thought patterns into positive ones. Hold your breath to a count of 8 and then breathe out while saying the word ‘peace or relax’ in a soothing and calm manner. Repeat this several times.
Educating yourself about the ways of the elderly can also help you calm down in their presence. Read up all you can about aging. This is a good way to desensitize yourself and transition from fear to understanding.
Gradual exposure or desensitization therapy can also help. This includes exposing yourself to your fear in a controlled manner. You can read up about the old, view photographs of elderly men and women, and gradually progress to visiting nursing homes. Perhaps you can be of service to elderly people by reading out to them, talking to them, or visiting them on birthdays. Eventually you will get over your fear completely.
For severe cases, there is psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy, or hypnotherapy. You can speak to your family doctor who can suggest the right therapy for your needs. One may also seek help online or offline through peer groups. Cognitive behavior therapy has shown great results. It is based on the principle of training the mind to recognize negative thought patterns by using its connection with feelings, sensations, and emotions and then consciously changing them into positive thought patterns. Hypnotherapy gets to the root of the phobia and helps reprogram the subconscious mind to get over the fear. In some cases, drugs may be used to prevent anxiety and panic attacks.