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Tackling mental health in ageing Australians: what the experts say

Lonely senior woman looking through window

These days, there are fewer stigmas around mental health. Celebrities and sports stars talking about mental health struggles encourage young people to open up about their own battles with depression and anxiety. But the same could not necessarily be said of our older generations. For many, a lack of awareness and feelings of shame prevent them from seeking support. We take a look at what the experts say about how to recognise, approach and support your loved ones who may be suffering in silence.

According to Beyond Blue, there are many risk factors that can result in depression for older people. In particular, they are more likely to be experiencing life changes that contribute to depression such as loss of a loved one, physical deterioration or the move into residential care.

If you have a loved one who is experiencing depression, it can be difficult to get them to open up about it. It can also be hard to identify whether changes in mood are the result of depression or other conditions commonly associated with ageing, such as dementia.

Recognising the symptoms of depression in older people

Anxiety and depression can impact people in different ways, but if you are concerned about the mental health of an ageing loved one, Beyond Blue recommends watching out for the following signs and symptoms.

Behavioural changes which might include difficulty making decisions, avoiding certain situations which could be triggers, avoiding eye contact, being startled easily or an urge to perform rituals to relieve stress or anxiety.

Physical symptoms can include an increased heart rate, vomiting or nausea, muscle tension or pain, disturbed sleep, sweating or shaking or feeling dizzy or faint. They could even get hot or cold flushes or numbness and tingling sensations.

They might describe feelings of being overwhelmed, fearful or often nervous and tense. They could also be experiencing feelings of dread or overwhelming panic, or be overly worried about their physical symptoms.

It can be difficult to encourage older people to talk about their thoughts. However, if you do manage to get them to open up, they may acknowledge having thoughts of a loss of control, thinking they are going crazy or about to die, or being concerned that others are judging them. They might also be experiencing upsetting dreams or flashbacks of a traumatic event, find it hard to stop worrying or have unwanted or intrusive thoughts.

Tips on talking to older people about their mental health

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, normalising mental illness in older adults continues to be a barrier to care. Worryingly, they also reveal that many people view depression as a normal consequence of ageing and therefore de-prioritise it compared to treatment of physical health.

It’s important then to be open and talk to your loved one about their mental health. Beyond Blue have created a factsheet with tips and strategies for broaching the topic – as well as a number of helpful videos about how you might open up the conversation. Within their advice, they recommend a three-step approach, providing examples of different questions you could ask at each stage.

Stage 1: Ask

You haven’t seemed yourself lately – is everything OK?”

Stage 2: Listen

“I can hear that the last few months have been really terrible for you. Please tell me more about it.”

Stage 3: Offer support

“Don’t think you have to deal with this on your own. I’m here for you. Things can get better.”

Where you can find support for your family

Treatment of depression for each individual will be different and may include medical therapies, talk therapies or a combination of the two. Better Health Victoria lists a range of resources where help can be accessed, and recommend speaking to your GP or local community health centre, and government-funded specialist mental health services in each State and Territory. These state-based resources typically provide a helpline that you can call for advice, as well as a range of online resources.

You can also reach out to organisations like Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute to seek further advice on the best approaches.

How you can be proactive about supporting your loved one

Lifestyle changes can have a big impact on mental health and should be considered in combination with other approaches recommended by a GP, Psychologist or other health professional. Eating well and taking small steps to remain active can have a big impact on mental wellbeing.

As reported here by the ABC, loneliness is also a huge factor when it comes to depression in older people. Shockingly, the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that men over the age of 85 have the highest suicide rate in Australia. But although experiences of loss and major life changes has a profound impact, so too can a little company. We recently wrote about how establishing community connections for older people can tackle the loneliness epidemic.

Support like that provided by Mable’s community of independent support workers can take many forms. Engaging the services of someone in your parent’s local area to pop around for a cuppa or support them to get out and participate in community life can help them feel less isolated.

Individuals in residential facilities are at the greatest risk of poor mental health, with more than 50% of people in nursing homes suffering depression, compared to 10-15% of adults of the same age according to The Conversation. Many independent support workers on the Mable platform also work with clients who live in residential aged care facilities to provide them with the companionship that residential staff may not have time to do. 

But it’s not just companionship that’s on offer. Experienced independent support workers can also help to prepare meals, provide personal support or help your loved ones to remain active or pursue forgotten hobbies or passions. Support workers like Mary, who helps her clients rediscover the things they love. 

With independent support workers offering their services directly, Mable is an affordable, flexible way to get the extra support that your family needs. Find out how it works here.


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