Mental health and older people
Vicki Prout of Mind describes ways in which older people can overcome the mental health problems that are too often overlooked or ignored, and the importance of addressing loneliness in the elderly.
Mental health problems can affect any of us at any age and one in four people will experience some form of mental distress in their lifetime. Yet the mental well being of older people is often overlooked because of greater concern about their physical deterioration.
However older people can live in a way that protects and promotes their mental health in the context of social and personal well being, just like other age groups.
The most common mental health problems in older people are depression and dementia. There is an unfortunate and widespread belief that these conditions are a natural part of the ageing process.
This is however not the case. Only 20 per cent of people over 85, and five per cent over 65, have dementia; 10-15 per cent of people over 65 have depression.
So the majority of older people have good mental health.
There are simple things you can do to stay mentally well as you get older.
It has been proven that exercise helps to boost mental health, even if it's just going for a gentle stroll.
As our physical abilities change in later life consider different ways of remaining active, for example by doing some gardening, swimming or playing bowls.
It can also be a great chance to learn new skills, keep your brain busy and meet new people. You can find more advice in Age Concern's fact sheet, Staying healthy in later life, which gives detailed information on these everyday things you can do to stay fit.
Diet and nutrition
There's a clear connection between food and mood. Missing meals or eating unhealthily can result in tiredness, depression, increased vulnerability to illness and greater sensitivity to the cold.
Maintaining a good diet is crucial for remaining active as well as reducing the risk of many illnesses and also osteoporosis. You can find more information in the Mind Guide to food and mood, and Age Concern's fact sheet Your guide to healthy living.
Problems concerning sleeping are not uncommon and these difficulties can get worse with age.
You naturally need less sleep as you get past 50 and the average length of sleep each night may fall to six hours or fewer. However whilst the occasional night without sleep is not a problem, ongoing insomnia or sleep disturbance can have many negative side effects and could be a cause or symptom of mental health problems such as depression or anxiety.
Your GP can identify the problem and possible solutions, or refer for further assessment if necessary. Mind has published two useful booklets, How to cope with sleep problems and Making sense of sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers.
Social and family life
Research has repeatedly shown that keeping in touch with relatives and friends from different age groups is particularly beneficial as you grow older.
Whether it's popping round for a cup of tea, or telephone and email contact, this can counteract the isolation that many older people experience, especially those who live alone.
Practical difficulties that can cause mental distress, for example poverty and mobility problems, can be alleviated by the assistance of friends and relatives who can help out.
Just by being a friendly face and a sympathetic ear, friends, family and neighbours can help older people feel less isolated and increase their sense of wellbeing.
Sadly mental distress in later life is an issue which is sometimes neglected or ignored. However it is not a natural or unalterable mental state for any personality, temperament or stage of life.
Charities including Mind, Help The Aged and Age Concern (now merged as Age UK) are working with the Government and health authorities to provide the help and support needed as well as access to the level of treatment and care required.
Research shows that loneliness has a similar impact on mortality as smoking. It has significant links to hypertension, depression, and increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 50 per cent.
To tackle this problem, the Campaign To End Loneliness has been established. To find out more about the campaign, click here.