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Why the Elderly’s Mental Health Deserves Special Attention

Mental Illness Awareness Week (6th-12th October 2019) received substantial publicity this month, with individuals from all walks of life reaching out to share their experiences with mental health difficulties. Celebrities from model Cara Develingne (who discussed her experience of depression) to actress Catharine Zeta-Jones (who spoke about her diagnosis of bipolar disorder) all contributed to the conversation.

As this year’s event demonstrates, mental health difficulties are very common. According to the The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health (2016) report, one in four people in the UK experience mental health issues every year.  

Although awareness, acceptance and understanding of mental health difficulties are improving, there is one demographic of the population among whom mental health needs are frequently overlooked. Older people are often less able to advocate for themselves, and less likely to engage with positive, awareness-raising initiatives such as Mental Illness Awareness Week. For this, and many more reasons, elderly mental health deserves special attention…

Aging and Mental Health

According to the World Health Organisation, the global proportion of older adults is set to rise from 12% in 2015, to 22% in 2050. With over 15% of individuals over 60 suffering from a mental health disorder, elderly mental health care is an ever more pressing issue.

Common Mental Health Problems in Old Age 

Older adults can suffer with the same mental health difficulties that affect individuals at all stages of life, such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. In addition to these issues, there are a number of mental health problems which are specific to later life, including dementia. 

The number of older people with dementia worldwide is estimated to be 50 million, with this figure projected to rise to 82 million by 2020. This degenerative neurological condition encompasses a range of diagnoses including Alzheimer's and frontotemporal dementia. Symptoms include memory loss and difficulties with thinking speed, language skills, understanding and mood.

Depression is another key issue for older people, affecting around 7% of the elderly population. These individuals may experience low moods, hopelessness, low self-esteem and a loss of enjoyment in life, alongside other symptoms. A diagnosis of clinical depression often comes hand-in-hand with social issues which commonly affect the elderly, including social isolation due to loss of contact with friends and family.

Health Group Activities for the Elderly

Increasing general awareness of aging and mental health issues is a crucial step towards ensuring that older adults gain access to the support and services they deserve. If difficulties are identified, there are many activities and approaches which can significantly improve the lives of older adults experiencing mental health problems.

At Westgate Healthcare, our care homes have introduced a wide range of programmes designed to support older adults experiencing dementia, depression, anxiety and other mental health difficulties. 

The Lifestyle Pioneer programme

Ensuring older adults have active, purposeful roles in their communities can be hugely beneficial for overall mental health and social connection. Westgate’s Lifestyle Pioneer programme works flexibly to create such roles for elderly people, allocating positions like resident gardener, day room monitor and even food critic. These roles are created using a person-centred framework, working with each individual’s interests, skills and personality. 

Pet therapy

Care homes across the UK are increasingly investing in therapy animals to help support residents with mental health difficulties. The benefits of contact with therapy animals include mental stimulation, companionship, reduced loneliness, relaxation, increased self-esteem and improved sleep. 

Brain training groups

Difficulties with memory, attention and social isolation can all be targeted through brain training groups. These groups create a socially engaging environment in which group members get involved with tasks such as reality orientation, reminiscence therapy, cognitive stimulation, multisensory stimulation and fun discussion activities. 

Quick Tips for Supporting Elderly Mental Health

Alongside mental health group activities for elderly people, there are lots of small steps everyone can take to support elderly mental health care. These might include:

  • Regular check-ins: Visit isolated older people in your community regularly to offer company, check their progress, offer support and ask about their mood. Be ready to listen. If you suspect an older adult may have an unaddressed mental health difficulty, encourage them to speak to their GP.
  • Support exercise: Getting outside and undertaking physical exercise (no matter how gentle) can have a significant positive impact on the mental health of older people.
  • Support social activities: Facilitate older people in accessing social groups which match their interests, from art classes and music discussion groups, to bowls clubs.
  • Talk about it: Mental health issues may be less understood or accepted by older people. Being open about yours and/or others’ experiences may help an elderly individual to address their needs.

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