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Case Two: Agoraphobia

Jim, age sixty-seven, never had any "nerve problems" in his life, according to his family. However, after suffering from a stroke, in which he lost movement on the left side of his body and fell, hurting his face and arm, he developed debilitating fears. After hospitalization, Jim received physical rehabilitation to help him regain his functioning. Nevertheless, he remains a "prisoner in his own home," as his son describes it: "Dad was fiercely independent before the stroke and did everything himself; now, he seems afraid to do anything alone." Jim says that because of his stroke-related weakness he can longer do many of the things outside the house that he used to do; he feels his walking is too unsteady. Jim's physical therapist is surprised at the degree of restriction. The therapist says that Jim does have enough strength; he simply becomes very fearful walking when someone is not nearby. When pressed, Jim agrees he has a great fear of falling: "Of course I'm scared; I could fall at any time and break my hip." Oddly, he is not reassured either by his physical therapist telling him that he is very unlikely to fall, nor by descriptions of other stroke sufferers who regained their independence. Jim cannot shake the anxiety that overcomes him when he thinks of going for a walk. As a result, Jim is considering moving from his home to a personal care home.

Jim's case is one of agoraphobia, literally "fear of the marketplace." This condition is characterized by fear of being trapped and unable to escape, or being alone and unable to get help in the event of having a physical problem. Agoraphobia is a common disorder in older individuals; it is estimated that it affects up to 8 percent of elderly persons. In younger individuals, agoraphobia usually develops after someone has experienced one or more panic attacks. In the elderly, however, agoraphobia often occurs for other reasons. Older adults can develop agoraphobia after medical events such as stroke, or traumatic events such as falls. The disorder can be difficult to detect, partly because the very nature of the disorder is to avoid going places, and this inhibits the person from seeking treatment. Jim's case exemplifies another diagnostic difficulty in the elderly: they often tend to normalize anxious behavior by either denying it exists or attributing it to realistic medical-related concerns.

Unfortunately, Jim's case illustrates a very common problem—that of anxiety disorders compounding or amplifying a disability caused by medical events. In Jim's case, a stroke that might only lead to minor changes in function is instead a severely disabling event when combined with agoraphobia. Another issue in this case is the need to rule out a depressive disorder. Depression is very common in elderly persons who have suffered medical events such as stroke, and it is frequently seen in those who suffer from an anxiety disorder. In Jim's case, his amplified disability might be not only from agoraphobia, but from depression as well. The optimal treatment of agoraphobia in younger adults is exposure therapy, by which the individual is repeatedly exposed to the feared situation while receiving professional advice from a therapist. As with other treatments for anxiety disorders, the efficacy of exposure therapy in older adults is unproven but promising. Some medications also help relieve agoraphobic symptoms, but these are also unproven in elderly persons.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1Anxiety - Case One: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Case Two: Agoraphobia, Case Three: Obsessive-compulsive Disorder