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AGE UK Press Release: New Research shows a “hidden" mental health crisis is debilitating older people

Published on 18 February 2022 09:41 AM

Age UK urges older friends and relatives to ‘reach out’ for help as restrictions relax and the pandemic loosens its grip, a “hidden" mental health crisis is debilitating older people[i]

As Covid-19 restrictions look set to be relaxed, Age UK’s most recent research reveals the alarming impact that the pandemic has had on older people’s mental health and confidence, hindering their return to everyday life and for many accelerating previous health conditions. 

The harrowing results of the research reveal that many older people are experiencing anxiety, memory loss, low mood and depression. In some cases, older people report feeling suicidal.

Common challenges include disturbed sleep patterns and a lack of confidence and motivation to get back to doing normal everyday activities.

The results of the research show that compared to pre- pandemic:

  • 4.1 million (33%) older people say they feel more anxious.
  • 4.3 million (34%) of older people said they feel less motivated to do the things they enjoy.

Further research indicates that during the pandemic the proportion of over 70s who are depressed doubled[ii], with 1.8 million people aged 60 and over reporting moderate to severe depressive symptoms in Summer 2021[iii]

Age UK heard heart breaking comments from older people who took part in the research such as:

“Think about death quite a lot. Life seems just a drudge. Nothing to look forward to.”

Exhaustion, depression/feeling low, brain fog. Difficult to concentrate when doing my professional job of tutoring.”

“Don't want to live longer seem to have any control over my life. Indoors alone for almost two years is killing me.”

Older people with depression frequently experience physical symptoms – such as tiredness, weight loss, and problems sleeping. The research found that:

  • 2.9 million (23%) of older people agreed they are finding it harder to remember things now than they did at the start of the pandemic, and
  • 4.3 million (34%) of older people disagreeing that they had been sleeping well.

 “I have difficulty remembering things e.g. names; what day it is; what I am supposed to do each day e.g. appointments (dentist); emails to answer. Feel muddle headed much of the time.”

“I now worry about things so much more than before to the point it is affecting sleeping through the night.”

Furthermore, a common theme throughout the research was the degree to which people living with dementia and cognitive impairment have seen their condition deteriorate more quickly than would have been otherwise anticipated over the last 2 years.

Tragically, the comments from the survey read:

“Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia- so that lack of physical contact and stimulation, not going out to shops etc has had a massive impact.”

“Anxiety has made husband’s Alzheimer’s worse due to fear of catching Covid. Coping with my depression/anxiety while keeping us both safe and well has been an ordeal.”

In addition, the measures taken to control Covid-19 over the last two years has had a huge impact on people’s lives, which together with the added worry of catching the virus, has left many older people feeling isolated and alone, with:

  • 5.1 million (41%) saying they felt lonely,
  • 3.4 million (27%) saying they spoke less to family.
  • 3 million (24%) feeling less close to family.

Age UK’s research uncovered some sad truths about how isolated many older people were feeling. They said:

“I have no confidence anymore. I have withdrawn into myself and struggle to communicate with friends, neighbours and family.”

“She was fiercely independent before lockdown arrived but being inside and alone has destroyed her and now we have a completely different person. It is heart-breaking!”

Worryingly, a number of older people (1 in 15) reported that they don’t have anyone to turn to when they need help or support.

While many people are relieved when covid restrictions are lifted, and there is a return to ‘normality’, in September last year, many older people said they were not confident leaving their homes to do the things they used to enjoy:

  • 3.6 million older people (29%) said they would not feel confident going to indoor venues such as restaurants, pubs or theatres.
  • 4.8 million (38%) older people told us they would not feel confident using public transport.
  • 3.3 million (26%) older people said they would not feel confident going to a religious venue such as the church, mosque or temple.
  • 1.6 million (13%) older people would not feel confident going to the shops.

Some of the comments from the people taking part in the survey read:

“After lockdown it has been difficult to get back into going out. I’ve got used to staying in and find I don’t want to be bothered with other people. However, this doesn’t make me happy.”

“The pandemic has totally changed the way I feel about everything. I no longer feel at ease around other people, and I don't automatically assume that I'll go back to doing the activities I might once have done.”

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s Charity Director, says: “It is important that all older people know they do not have to cope alone. I really would encourage them to reach out and ask for help if they are feeling low or anxious. 

“The pandemic has had a big impact on everyone of all ages and very few of us are emerging from the last two years completely unscathed. However, talking about mental health and wellbeing is not something most older people have traditionally done, so they need to know it's ok - perfectly normal in fact. Many older people may feel reluctant to start a conversation about mental health, but the NHS is still there to support them and can offer treatments such as Talking Therapies which are often very effective.

“Before the pandemic started older people were already under-referred for NHS talking therapy services. The proportion of referrals made up by older people is now the lowest it’s been for years, despite them being just as likely as other age groups to experience common mental health conditions. In addition, experts agree that when given the opportunity, older people do really well when they engage in counselling and the like, and we need to continually challenge misconceptions and stereotypes that prevent older people from getting the psychological help they need and deserve.

“We can all do our bit to help by reaching out to older relatives and friends for a chat over the phone. For anyone hard of hearing, a letter may be hugely welcome. For those online, video calls offer a world of opportunities to stay in touch. Simple actions like these can do more good than you will ever know, especially now.”

Rosie Weatherley, Information Content Manager at Mind, said: “It’s shocking that millions of older people are reporting feeling depressed, lonely and anxious since the pandemic began. Mind’s research found that, during the first lockdown, many people reported a decline in their mental health. Despite this increased prevalence, lots of people were reluctant to ask for help because they were concerned about ‘burdening’ the NHS at a time of increased pressure. This is worrying because we know that left untreated, mental health problems become more difficult and expensive to treat.

“If you notice changes to your thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are affecting your daily life, last longer than two weeks, or keep returning – try to talk to someone you trust, ideally your GP. A GP should be able to let you know if you might have a common mental health problem, like depression and anxiety, and signpost you to support.

“There are lots of treatments available, including talking therapy, medication and self-care techniques like exercise, mindfulness and arts therapies. We know that NHS support offered remotely (via phone or online) due to COVID restrictions won’t work for everyone, with many struggling with technology or concerned about confidentiality. We have been calling on the UK Government to make sure face-to-face services continue to be offered. Age UK also provide some amazing support to older people, such as befriending, so if you’re worried, please make use of the support available.”

Peter Ireland, Counselling Manager at Age UK Manchester, said: “Since the start of Covid we have seen many clients presenting with anxiety and depression. Some of these feelings have been complicated by the bereavement of a loved one and being unable to attend funerals. Some have been accentuated by the anxiety around health services and treatments being postponed or delayed which were supporting their existing health conditions. For many carers, the pressures of caring for a partner or family member during covid has become increasingly challenging. For those who were taking part in social groups and classes the isolation has had a substantial impact on their self-esteem.

“We have spoken to an older person who, during Covid, used their bus pass to go on bus journeys every day to try to manage feelings of claustrophobia which were manifesting into panic attacks.

“There have been examples of clients who have been carers for partners who have dementia. The withdrawal of the provision of day care due to lockdown and trying to cope without that support has made their stress to rise to intolerable levels.

“We have seen couples who have been married for over half a century being frantic with worry after not being able to see their husband or wife for months due to being separated by one going into nursing home, and then not being unable to visit them due to shielding.

“There have been examples of clients who before the pandemic had active social lives and regular social contact with friends and relatives. Their self-esteem and wellbeing had spiraled into anxiety, low mood and negativity once lockdown brought a halt to their activities.  

“For some of our clients there is a general fear of this invisible enemy that has been destroying lives. They have become fearful of other people, of going shopping, or even going out for a walk. Others are terrified of having to go into hospital and never coming out. Even though the risk from the virus and the isolation of the lockdown appears to be lifting for many people, the fear, anxiety and mistrust carries on. For them it is simply not a matter of returning to normal.”


It is vital that we all take steps to look after emotional wellbeing. Some of those steps might include:

  • Stay in touch and stay connected. If you are online then keep in touch with friends and family via Skype, or Whats App or by phone or digital messaging.  Try to establish meaningful social distanced connections with people in your community, such as your neighbours.
  • Try to do something you enjoy every day and find things that make you laugh, such as humorous movies, books, or online videos. Keep going with hobbies and interests.
  • Staying active can help to improve your mood – light exercise or even moving just a little bit more within your own capabilities can help.
  • Sign up to Age UK Befriending and Call in Time Services or Silverline services. They offer a reassuring voice and clear information from trained staff on the support available to older people.
  • Talk about how you are feeling and if you are struggling to cope with your mental health speak to your GP.


Age UK has some information in a ‘Your Mind Matters’ guide about starting the conversation. Find it here

Age UK’s befriending services and Silverline services offer advice and can help combat any feelings of loneliness. Find details here.

In January the NHS launched a new mental health campaign ‘Help’ to encourage anybody experiencing anxiety, depression, or other common mental health concerns to come forward and see how talking therapies can help them. NHS mental health talking therapies are a confidential service run by fully trained experts and can be accessed by self-referral or through your GP.  

NHS talking therapy treatments (IAPT) have high success rates in treating older people experiencing anxiety and even though the pandemic has meant that face to face appointments may not always be possible - talking therapy treatments have adapted to continue digitally or over the phone with just as good success rates. Older people can speak to their GP about talking therapies or refer themselves to the service.

Winter can be one of the toughest and most challenging times of year for older people. The increased isolation and illness that older people can experience during the darker, colder months, are exacerbated by the weather and many have no one to turn to for help.

Age UK needs urgent funds so that it can continue offering services like its free and confidential Advice Line and Telephone Friendship Services, which are invaluable lifelines to older people during the winter. To donate visit

Anyone who needs support, is worried about an older relative or friend, or wants to find out more about Age UK’s Telephone Friendship Services can get in touch by calling the Age UK Advice Line free of charge on 0800 169 6565 (8am-7pm) or visit Any older person looking for a cheerful chat can call The Silver Line’s free helpline, day or night, on 0800 4 70 80 90.


[i] The source for figures in this press release is online polling conducted on the Research Express Online Omnibus by Kantar Polling between 31st August 2021 and 13th September 2021, of 1,598 people aged 60+ in the UK. Figures from the polling were scaled up to the UK age 60+ population using ONS mid-year population estimates.

[ii] ‘The proportion of people aged 70+ in Great Britain reporting moderate or severe depressive symptoms was 5% in July 2019 to March 2020, and increased to 10% in June 2020. From June 2020 to August 2021, the date for which the most recent data are available, the proportion of older people reporting moderate or severe depression has remained at between 8% and 10%.’ Source: Office for National Statistics (2020), ‘Coronavirus and depression in adults in Great Britain: June 2020’. Available here Coronavirus and depression in adults

[iii] Source can he found at the ONS here at Table 4



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Last updated: Feb 18 2022

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