Thursday October 10th is World Mental Health Day 2019.

The World Health Organisation notes that mental and neurological disorders make up 6.6% of the total disability of older adults aged 60 and over. Additionally, approximately 15% of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental disorder, with 1 in 4 older people being affected by depression and as many as 2 in 5 in residential care.

This means that mental and neurological health problems affect an increasingly larger number of the elderly, and supporting mental wellbeing should be a key factor to keep in mind when planning and providing care supports.

An elderly man is pictured with puzzle pieces coming from his head, representing confusion or lost memories. Some text reads: Seeking help for Mental Health is not a weakness.

So what causes mental health conditions in older people?

As we age, we experience a large number of changes. We may be affected by poor health, or chronic illness and pain and for many, multiple health conditions that restrict our ability to do the things that were once easy.

Finances may be limited, we no longer have the opportunity to do some of our favourite activities because our finances are tied up in paying health bills or simply covering the rent and food bills.

Relationships change. Partners may become full time carers, no longer able to pursue activities, with their days consumed by caring for a loved spouse or a younger person with a disability. They face bereavement on a more regular basis as older friends and family pass away. If people need to, or choose to move out of the family home to a new area, they face not only the stress of moving but also a loss of neighbourhood connection. Older people are more likely to become isolated and experience loneliness.

We also become more vulnerable as we age. The World Health Organisation quotes evidence that suggests that 1 in 6 older people experience some form of elder abuse leading to long-lasting psychological consequences, including depression and anxiety. A quarter of all deaths are from self-harm amongst people aged 60 and over.

Mental health problems are under-identified by health-care professionals and older people themselves, and the stigma surrounding these conditions makes people reluctant to seek help.

As organisations providing care to vulnerable consumers, we want to support good mental health as much as the person’s physical wellbeing. How can we help people with mental health issues to live life with dignity?

How can we encourage good mental wellbeing?

Firstly we need to recognise that mental wellbeing – how we are feeling and coping with day to day life – is dynamic, it changes from hour to hour, day to day and month to month depending on what is happening in our life.

Sometimes you can help an older person receiving care through the services you provide or by linking them to other providers who can also assist them.

If someone is struggling with managing their finances they may need to be referred to a financial advisor who can assist them to arrange their finances appropriately, including managing and reducing debt.

Chronic health conditions can be debilitating and a concern to someone who has previously lived a full and active life. But a diagnosis often doesn’t mean that someone has to give up on everything they enjoy. Service providers may need to help consumers to identify alternative activities that they can safely participate in or refer to a chronic health or pain management professional for additional information that can allay a person’s concerns.

Helping people to connect with others can assist in overcoming loneliness and boredom. For carers, there are carer support groups and respite options. There are craft and activity groups for seniors, classes for those who want to pursue a new skill or learn something new. For those who want to keep active, you can assist in linking them up to free or low cost exercise opportunities such as council-run Tai Chi for Seniors.

Exercise programs can be fun, support the maintenance of health and help people meet up with others on a regular basis. This also provides the older person with a peer group to consult with when needed. Of course, physical activity in itself supports good mental health and well-being.

People will naturally feel more stressed when major events are happening in their life and this is to be expected. People may simply need support from us to eventually get their mental wellbeing back on an even keel. Maybe we need to provide an opportunity for them to talk about an issue or give them space and time to process the event. If a consumer is feeling particularly troubled by an issue though, we can encourage them to seek professional support, helping them to understand that to seek help is not a weakness.

So on Thursday October 10th take some time to discuss Mental Health with your team, ensure that they understand the impact of ageing on Mental Health and explore ways that you and your organisation can support mental wellbeing.

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