Older people and mental health: Is 'tackling loneliness' enough?

CommonSpace journalist Rhiannon J Davies takes a look at older people and mental health issues, a conversation that is often forgotten.

“IT’S the loneliness,” says Mandy, 62, based in Clydesdale. “When you’re in a room on your own and you sit and start to think ‘why bother washing the dishes; who’s going to see it? Why wash my hair today –  it can wait another couple of days yet.”

Mandy, suffers from long-standing depression, anxiety and grief at the loss of her husband. She had previously been a carer for her husband and found herself very alone after he passed away.

For many older people, it is these big changes that have an impact on poor mental wellbeing – loss, bereavement, moving away, and lacking purpose can all play a part. And while there is a growing awareness among young people about mental health issues and the importance of discussing them, older people are often left out of these conversations.

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A report on older people’s mental health and wellbeing by community development charity, Outside the Box found that many older people say that poor mental health is not something they are used to talking about and often don’t have the language to do so. However, in recent years there has been increased awareness about the issues of loneliness.

Yesterday, the Scottish Government released its new strategy, ‘Connected Scotland: Tackling social isolation and loneliness’. Launching the publication, Minister for Older People and Equalities, Christina McKelvie said: "One in ten people in Scotland report often feeling lonely… People often feel afraid to admit they are lonely or isolated yet these feelings can affect anyone at any age, or stage, or walk of life. It is known that social isolation and loneliness can have a significant impact on a person's physical and mental wellbeing which is why we are tackling this issue with a preventative approach allowing loneliness and social isolation to be treated as a public health issue."

The strategy has been welcomed by many working with older people and is being posited as a ‘world-leading’ strategy. Loneliness and social isolation may have become hot topics, that are important to address, but older people may have long-standing mental health issues that are completely separate to these.

After speaking to older people for the report on mental health, Anne Connor, Chief Executive of Outside The Box, said: “Some people are socially isolated, some are both socially isolated and lonely – they’re not the same thing – and some people have poor mental health and wellbeing. There are other people who are not socially isolated, who have loads of connections, and yet they are still really struggling around their mental health and wellbeing. They told us that they just felt that it wasn’t right to just put the two together – both situations are important, both need support, but it needs to be understood that it’s different.”READ MORE: Forging communities based on togetherness is the solution to our loneliness epidemic

 

After the age of 65, people with poor mental health who might have relied upon support provided by adult services find this supportis no longer available to them. Awareness of this coming change can increase anxiety levels and this is not helped by the fact that older people’s services tend to be far more overstretched than those aimed at adults.

Quotes from older people interviewed for the Outside The Box report on this subject, include:

  • “You just get passed from pillar to post. It feels that no-one is interested once you reach 65.”
  • “I was told I no longer fitted the criteria of a support service that I had used for many years. I went back to my GP and social work, but was told I was too old for every service.”
  • “Why do the services need to have a sudden break when you are 65? Could they phase out one service gradually, or have a proper hand over? Saying ‘that’s how it is’ does not seem right.”

READ MORE: Inside Scotland's Men's Sheds, where 'manning up' is left at the door

These issues are often amplified in rural communities. Local libraries, shops and amenities that enable people to live in connected rural communities have closed down. There is less employment locally causing young families to move away and rural public transport is often not fit to serve the community it services.

Speaking to CommonSpace, Healthy Valleys project worker, Barbara Harding, said: “Older people are staying at home for longer, they’re more frail, not able to get out of the house in the same way they used to – it’s a viscous circle that creates a legacy of loneliness. Sometimes they might not have a visitor from one week to the next. One of the ladies we work with told us she goes up to the local funeral parlour just to have a chat with someone.”

Barbara Harding works on the Healthy Valleys Re-Connect project which ‘is for older people aged over 50 living in their own homes in Clydesdale who are experiencing issues which increase loneliness and isolation and therefore making it difficult for them to live independently’.

It is a volunteer-led project which has help hundreds of people in the Clydesdale area, through pairing older people with volunteers, providing someone to talk to and encouraging people to make community connections.

It was funded for three years by the Big Lottery Fund but that grant is coming to an end in the new year. Like many third-sector projects working in this field, they don’t receive any final support from the Scottish Government but are instead reliant on competing for pots of time limited funding.

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Often government funding goes to nation-wide organisations rather than smaller scale local projects.

“The difficulty is the fragility of funding” said Fiona Gairns, Re-Connect Development Worker. “You know your service is good and people do appreciate it but you’re always aware that it’s short term... Whilst there are good national initiatives, I don’t think you can beat local organisations who are embedded in the community – I don’t think one size fits all.”

Supporting these projects can have the effect of reducing pressures on statutory services. Fiona Gairns said: “GPs have told us that some people who might be regular visitors no longer need to go every week, because they have the volunteers to talk to.  It’s the same for hospitals, if you’re in the house on your own and have an ailment, it can often become a bigger thing than it really is, so they phone the ambulance.”

Introducing the Connected Scotland strategy, McKelvie called on people across Scotland to play their part: “It is the responsibility of all of us as individuals and communities, and within the public sector, local authorities and businesses to reach out with kindness and build a country where all of us feel welcome within our communities and valued as an important part of society."

For Mandy, the referral to Healthy Valleys project, and the opportunity to connect with other people and subsequently begin to volunteer and make a difference to the lives of others has made a world of difference.  

“I know I’m not well yet”, she said. “But I’m awful lot better than I was – simply because I’ve had somebody to grab my hand and pull me and say come on and do this. And I did and it’s changed my life.”

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