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As we as a population continue to live longer, elderly mental health is becoming a more pressing issue. While we consistently discuss the mental health of young people and adults, the elderly are quite often left behind. Yet they are among one of the most susceptible groups for developing conditions such as depression and anxiety. In fact, depression affects twenty-two per cent of men and twenty-eight per cent of women aged over sixty-five. However, it’s estimated to be much higher, with eighty-five per cent of the elderly thought to receive no mental health care from the NHS at all. Not to mention those who might not report instances of low mood or anxiety due to generational stigma.
The challenges that come with ageing are profound and have a significant impact on a person’s mental well-being. Bereavement, physical decline and loneliness are just a few of the issues frequently faced by our ageing population. Yet the support we offer is limited, with the responsibility of care largely being on their family.
As future generations age, however, fewer and fewer will have families to rely on. And, the question of responsibility also needs to be raised. Should the responsibility fall entirely onto a person’s siblings, children or even grandchildren? Or what else can be done to ensure the ongoing support of our ageing population?
Why is elderly mental health so important?
Decreasing feelings of vulnerability.
As we age, we often develop physical health issues, suffer the loss of loved ones, our independence decreases and so much more. These changes can be overwhelming and increase feelings of loneliness, anxiety about the future, depression and grief. While providing the correct mental health care and support may not prevent these feelings from occurring, it can help with processing emotions. It can also provide insight as to how they themselves might be able to manage a decline in physical or cognitive ability. Finally, it can signpost them to any other help they may be entitled to.
Providing physical and cognitive support.
As briefly discussed above, as we age, we lose physical and cognitive ability. This could be due to a variety of reasons such as illness, ageing joints and bones, and reduced physical activity. And what happens when we lose our independence and have to rely on others for help? Our mental health suffers. If you’ve ever been unwell or broken a bone, you’ll know just how debilitating it can be.
Others may experience a decline in their cognitive function. They may become more forgetful, unable to drive or move around, and sadly many suffer from conditions such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease.
No matter how you look at it, growing older means that we will have to rely on others for help and assistance at some point. And for many who are used to their own independence, this can be embarrassing and upsetting.
Encouraging mental stimulation, providing support, and addressing mental health issues early can help protect cognitive function and maintain cognitive abilities in the elderly.
Improving social connection and overall quality of life.
Part of elderly mental health care is promoting a good quality of life. Socialization, relationships, hobbies and providing a sense of fulfillment are essential. That’s why, during the pandemic, so many of the elderly became severely isolated and depressed, even within residential facilities.
While it pains me to write this, my own grandfather once stated during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown ‘you have all forgotten about me.’ He was in a wonderful residential home at the time and they were doing their best to fight back the pandemic. He almost died that summer and while we were allowed to see him in full PPE, it was painful to hear him talk like that. When he was moved to an outside room where we could talk to him through the window, his mental health improved. But he was never the same, and sadly he passed away just after my wedding in late November that year.
If this instance, and many others like it, taught us anything, it’s the incredible power of love and socialization. Without both, we run the risk of isolation, loneliness and serious instances of depression. By providing adequate elderly mental health care we can help improve mood, increase resilience and enhance their overall well-being in the process.
Increasing awareness and destigmatization.
Elderly mental health care is among one of the least talked about when we think about mental wellness. This is partially because of the stigma around mental health and wellness within that generation. Mental health, wellness and self-care weren’t as wildly talked about nor nurtured as they are now. All we have to do is look at the existence of asylums to see just how stigmatized mental health really was. And while we do still fight against some stigma, it’s nothing compared to that of the early to mid-nineteen hundreds.
By focusing on mental health care among the elderly we’re opening the lines of communication, promoting understanding and encouraging older adults to seek help without the fear of judgement.
How can we support elderly mental health?
By prioritising elderly mental health care we’re ensuring they receive the support and resources needed to continue to enjoy life well into old age. Support can be sought in many places, be it within family, community groups, and general medical practitioners. The Lutheran Services, for example, offer a wide range of aged care including respite care and permanent residential care.
Based in Australia, The Lutheran Services are dedicated to helping the older generation thrive in their golden years. They work together with clients and their families to find the best possible options for them.
Not sure how to get started or how we can better support older people? Here are just a few ideas!
Encourage open communication.
This is the first place you should start when approaching the subject of elderly mental health. By providing clear communication, we’re able to foster an environment where the elderly feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings and emotions. By regularly encouraging open conversations, and engaging in active listening and empathy, we make it easier for people to talk about their experiences and break through the stigma!
Promote social connections.
Isolation is a serious concern among the older population. Feelings of loneliness and depression are at an all-time high, with many instances of such feelings going unreported. A great way to combat this is to encourage social activities and personal relationships with friends, family and their local community. In the twenty-first century, there are hundreds more ways to keep in touch from group meetings to texting and even social media!
Provide companionship when possible.
If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s the importance of companionship. The elderly population suffered greatly during COVID-19, specifically those who were in residential treatment or living alone. The active presence of friends and family significantly contributes greatly to our mental health, and specifically those who are older. It allows them to feel in touch, loved and cared for, even if all we do is ‘pop’ in for a cup of tea.
Support their physical health.
Our physical and mental health are deeply connected, no matter the age. Sadly, the older we get the more our physical health declines. For some, their physical health may be the contributing factor to poor mental health, or vice versa. But one thing is for certain; it comes to us all.
By encouraging regular exercise we not only promote better physical health, but an increase in mood and cognitive function. Something as simple as a gentle walk around the block, gardening or stretching can be enough to get the blood flowing.
It’s also important that they attend regular medical check-ups and manage any given medication correctly. For those still living independently, this may mean accompanying them to appointments and setting up a medi-box service with their local pharmacy.
Offer assistance with daily tasks.
Ageing can be challenging. Your mind may feel young, but your body isn’t, and we can’t do the things we’ve always done. By offering support with daily household chores, transportation or groceries, we’re better able to ease the burden.
Recognize signs of mental health issues.
Take the time to educate yourself on the most common mental health conditions that present in the elderly. Look out for signs of depression, anxiety and even eating disorders. Some simple things to watch out for are signs of distress, changes in sleeping patterns, a loss of appetite and social withdrawal. If you notice any concerning symptoms, speak up. Ask them how they are or speak to a medical professional for more information about how you can help.
Seek professional help when needed.
General practitioners and mental health professionals are trained to address the specific needs of the elderly. If you notice any troubling signs, encourage them to seek help from their GP or therapist. It might not be easy, and you might face some resistance, but remind them that you have their best interest at heart.