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Assisting an older loved one with mental health conditions

If you are a carer or partner of an older person, there’s a lot of pressure on you to stay on top of their health and wellbeing in general, let alone adding in mental health conditions that may make caring responsibilities harder.

Last updated: December 3rd 2021
Mental health conditions can impact an older person’s everyday life, which may affect how you deliver care. [Source: Shutterstock]

Mental health conditions can impact an older person’s everyday life, which may affect how you deliver care. [Source: Shutterstock]

Key points:

  • Mental health conditions can impact on your role as a carer

  • Try to check in with the person regularly about how they are doing and if they need extra support

  • When supporting a person with mental health conditions, encourage a healthy lifestyle and ongoing management of their mental health

After years of stigma, more and more older people are opening themselves up to help and assistance for mental health issues.

Liz Kelly, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Carers ACT, says, “It is a topic we need to talk more about, we don’t talk about mental health in older people, we categorise and put them in those archetypes – the “grumpy old man” or the cat lady” – rather than going, you know what, ageing is a process and it can bring on mental health conditions, and mental health conditions aren’t just something that happens.

“What mental health can do with older people is change the nature of the relationship we have. Often having a mental health condition at [any] age can change our personality a little bit, it changes how we interact with the world.”

It’s important that older people are supported in recognising any issues they may be having and receive help to access services they need for their mental health.

Watch for signs

Carers can be the first to recognise behavioural changes or issues with an older loved one they care for.

Ms Kelly says there are a number of things carers can look out for which may indicate mental health issues in an older person.

“Some of the ways we may be able to identify is that change in personality, if they have lost interest in things they like, or a change in a willingness to engage in things that would normally bring [them] joy,” says Ms Kelly.

“We expect when people are ageing that those things would slow down a little, their energy and what they spend their time on, but we shouldn’t see them withdraw completely from what they are interested in and we shouldn’t see them wanting to stay away from the world.

“That is not what healthy ageing looks like.”

Signs to look for include:

  • Withdrawing or a lack of interest in things they used to enjoy

  • Sleeping a lot more

  • Complete change in sleeping patterns (for example day sleeping and awake at night)

  • Change in eating habits

  • An abnormal change to their personality

  • Exhibiting anxious behaviours

  • “Grumpiness” or anger

Difficult conversations

If you have identified your older loved one is experiencing or showing symptoms of mental health problems, you may need to sit the person down for a chat.

This conversation should be open, light, and not feel pointed or out of the blue to the person. Sometimes putting a name to the problem can be confronting to people and they may put up their defences.

Ms Kelly recommends asking questions about how a person is going and inviting conversation about their feelings.

For example, “Hey, I have noticed that you are not interested in this hobby anymore and you are not engaging in things that bring your joy. I am worried about you. What’s going on?”

Ms Kelly explains, “It is a much more inviting way to have that conversation and just allow the person to speak about how they are feeling and to know that you don’t have to sit in it and pretend it is not happening.

“There are ways you can actually feel better. Give that person hope and a sense that this isn’t an inevitable part of ageing.”

If there are concerns over how to raise the issues, Ms Kelly recommends talking to the person’s doctor and seeing if they can raise these concerns or topics with the older person.

Otherwise, she would suggest people picking up pamphlets about older person depression or anxiety from doctors’ clinics and leaving them around the home. It may be a good conversation starter or help the older person realise they may be experiencing these issues.

Supporting you in your caring

Mental health conditions can impact an older person’s everyday life, which may affect how you deliver care or if you can deliver certain care. Addressing these mental health concerns in an older person can help with how you deliver care.

Ms Kelly suggests engaging with the public health system and finding a professional in older person mental health.

She adds that while it is important to look out for the person you are caring for, you should also be mindful of how you are managing with the situation.

“If you are caring for an older person with mental health issues, it is really important as a carer that you are investing in looking after yourself as well, so you are strong and able to provide the care you want to provide,” says Ms Kelly.

A good resource for carers is the Carer Gateway website, which can assist you in finding supports and information about caring for an older loved one. To find out more about how Carer Gateway can help you, read our article on the Aged Care Guide.

Help facilitate supports

Ways that can assist an older person with mental health conditions is making sure they have access to mental health services, like seeing a psychologist or social worker regularly. This can help the older person understand what they are experiencing and give them an idea around how their thoughts or behaviours can manifest.

Your older loved one may benefit from going to support groups with people experiencing the same issues. Because mental health can be hidden, it may give the older person a better understanding of how common mental health conditions are.

Additionally, facilitating a healthy and enjoyable lifestyle can make a huge impact on an older person’s mental health and wellbeing. This could include regular exercise, a nutritional diet, or regular socialisation.

Ms Kelly says that it is important that people remember that just because something works for others, doesn’t mean it will work for your older loved one. For example, meditation and yoga isn’t for everyone.

She explains that there are five ways to reach good mental health and wellbeing – connect with people, learn new things, be active, help those around us, and be aware of how you are going.

“The idea is to work with people on how to make changes in each area of their life in order to bring about a good sense of wellbeing, because we can cope with the mental health conditions better if we have good wellbeing,” explains Ms Kelly.

“So it might be going for a walk around the block, but it might also be going for a cup of tea or coffee with our mates, it might be doing some gardening. We have a lovely older gentleman that is learning Portuguese for the first time and we have seen his wellbeing improve because he is investing in something new and feeling meaning in life.

“I think that is a very important part of working and supporting older people, ensuring they feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their life. And that doesn’t mean they need to volunteer, it can mean learning a new language.”

Emergency help lines

If you need to talk to someone or to access mental health resources, you can contact:

Carer Gateway: 1800 422 737

Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Healthdirect Australia: 1800 022 222

Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling: 1800 011 046

If you are concerned for the safety of the older loved one you are caring for, organise an appointment with your doctor, or in more severe cases, call 000 and ask for an ambulance.

What techniques and strategies have you implemented to support your older person with mental health problems? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

The link between dementia and depression
Mental health services for older people in aged care
Allied health to assist with the ageing experience

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