Explainer Guide: Mental Health in Elderly People
Mental health is something that can affect our social well-being and emotional and physical health. It affects the choices we make, as well as our effect on others.
The problems can come from biological factors (such as chemistry in the brain or genes), life experiences (such as abuse and trauma) or if there is a family history of mental health problems.
More and more people are relying on medical professionals and home care services to help with mental health issues either for themselves, or for family members. Lifestyle changes can also make a massive difference. Currently, one in four in the world will be, or already is, affected by mental health issues – and they can affect anyone at any time.
What is World Mental Health Day?
World Mental Health Day was celebrated for the very first time on 10th October 1992 with a view to educate the public on mental health.
It is now supported by the WHO (World Health Organisation), who also raise mental health issues and support the developments of communication and technical material.
The day is used by people all over the world to promote talking about mental health and to abolish the social stigma that comes with it. There is a new theme each year, the most recent theme in 2019 being ‘Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention’.
Breaking the Stigma
We have already witnessed the positive impact that World Mental Health Day can make. Topics are being spoken about more often, and people are encouraging each other to open up.
Campaigns such as ‘Britain Get Talking’ by ITV and ‘I’m Fine’ by Mental Health Foundation are breaking down the stigma of mental health, and more and more people are taking to social media to talk about their problems.
Unfortunately, this is where older people tend to get left behind. In the last 30 years, people aged 65 and over grew by nearly half (paradoxically, life expectancy rises are grinding to a halt).
Shockingly, depression affects 28% of women and 22% of men aged 65+ and 85% of these people receive no help with their mental health.
For elderly people, especially those who get illnesses such as cancer, dementia or another physical disability, they are more at risk of mental illness, especially since their generation in the past have been discouraged from talking about it.
With newer technology and most of it being online these days, older people are less likely to have computers or social media, so their avenues of communication aren’t as wide.
Mental health is a topic that is commonly spoken about between young people and children, but elderly people and mental health is a topic that isn’t spoken about anywhere near as much.
Factors That Influence Mental Health
It’s common to think that mental health problems develop naturally as we get older, but this is actually not true. As with anyone at any age, different factors go into mental health such as your genes or any recent events.
A change in lifestyle, especially for old people who have been used to a particular routine for years, can impact their mental health as it’s something out of their comfort zone that they might feel they don’t have the time to adjust to.
Retiring is something that is completely new for all people who haven’t reached that point yet. For elderly people, it’s a case of planning and making sure they are ready for retirement; for younger people, it’s wondering if they will ever get to retirement, and what it will be like.
It can be a significant life change for older people, especially for those who have worked for the majority of their lives.
The current “silver” generation lived in a different era and, most likely, they will have been working since they were young teenagers. When retirement comes around, it can cause anxiety as there are lots of things to think about: financial security and future costs without a work income, keeping friendships made at work and maintaining self-esteem if they were someone who was valued in their working environment.
In certain cases, some older people will have been forced to take an early retirement against their will – for example, if their employer’s business has gone bankrupt. This can affect older people’s mental health as they just might not be ready for change, especially if early retirement was never a part of their plan.
For some, it can presage anxiety and depression, as they may feel that it’s too late for them to be able to get another job.
The Effect of War
For a lot of elderly people, it’s very likely that they’ve lived through at least one war in their life – whether they’ve taken part in one or whether they have been caught up in one.
People who survived World War 2 are 6% more likely to suffer from depression, and thousands of soldiers suffered from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), which has led to a lot of people self-medicating with alcohol and other substances.
After WW2, hospitals may have been full of people with mental health problems, but as there was such negativity around the subject, people would not speak about it and in some cases, it brought shame to families.
Especially in countries such as the UK where people were taught to have a ‘stiff upper lip’, this mentality also stopped people from saying how they really felt.
To this day, this mentality has affected older people as they didn’t get the treatment they needed initially.
Other Factors Influencing the Mental Health of Seniors
Death is something that affects everyone: no matter what age you are, it doesn’t mean you’re ready for it. As death becomes more frequent as we get older, it can affect mental health severely and lead to depression and suicide depending on how much a person is affected.
Loneliness is a big problem in today’s world for elderly people, especially those who have been around people or their spouse for most of their lives.
Generations are different, and the current silver generation came from a time when community culture was encouraged; marrying young was also common.
When these normalities disappear from elderly people’s lives, it can be a big cause of depression and anxiety as they are have been used to it for so long.
Takotsubo syndrome, or as it’s more commonly known ‘broken heart syndrome’, is very real and consists of the heart’s pumping function being temporarily disrupted which increases the risk of death for the sufferer.
It has similar symptoms to a heart attack as the heart weakens during a traumatic event.
This is also why it’s common for elderly couples to die within a short time of each other.
Health Issues Common in Elderly People
Other health issues that are more common in later life, such as cancer, dementia or arthritis, can affect older people, especially those who have led an active lifestyle throughout their life.
Physical disabilities will affect older people from leaving their homes and so loneliness is also an issue.
With these health issues comes medication and common side effects of medication relate to mental health. Since older people are more likely to be taking more than one type of medication at any time, their chances of experiencing mental health problems grows.
To combat these issues, a lot of elderly people are placed into care homes, have a local home carer or rely on a home care agency, especially when their families are unable to look after them anymore.
Personal care assistants are trained to help with specific problems and they do especially well to tackle the problem of loneliness in older people.
The Importance of a Healthy Lifestyle
To help with mental health, it’s always suggested to have a plan regarding retirement, wills and funeral costs. It will serve to lessen anxiety within elderly people and their families.
Doctors always suggest pursuing a healthy lifestyle, including following a mental health-friendly diet. It’s also wise to find a physical activity that keeps the brain and body active, which has the added benefit of improving sleeping patterns and boosting self-esteem.
To combat loneliness, it’s a good idea to volunteer somewhere if retired or unemployed, and to join social groups to form new friendships.
It’s always important to have someone to talk to in case there are any issues, whether it’s a friend, family member or specialist. Oh, and write things down if needed!
It’s important to remember that mental health varies from person to person. Some people will feel comfortable talking about it and others won’t be ready. Some mental health illnesses also require doctor’s attention, so a visit to the GP may be necessary in some cases.
Of course, there is a tremendous amount we can do to help ourselves, from practising mindfulness and meditation to improving our diet, ridding our lives of negative influences and stimuli, pursuing a worthwhile hobby like learning a language, exercising, prioritising sleep, spending time in green spaces and so on.
Hopefully mental health will be spoken about even more than it is now, without any labels of taboo. The more the younger generation continues the fight for proper mental health care and talking about it openly, it will be easier for future older generations to get the help and treatment they require.
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Finding a physical activity that keeps the brain and body active has the added benefit of improving sleep patterns.