Blog: More older people experiencing mental health issues after a year of pandemic living
Published on 07 May 2021 04:00 PM
For more than a year now, the Covid pandemic has taken a severe toll on older people’s mental health. Lockdown and shielding, during a health emergency in which almost 9,000 over 65s in Scotland lost their lives, has resulted in unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness.
During Mental Health Awareness Week, it is important to remember that although lockdown is easing, the psychological consequences of Covid are going to be with us for a very long time. Many older people are not ready - or emotionally resilient enough – to embrace pre-pandemic life yet.
Research published by Age UK last October examined the psychological impact on older people of living with prolonged stress, uncertainty, isolation and loneliness during the first lockdown. Respondents described a loss of confidence, fear, depression, a loss of hope and no longer derived pleasure from the things in life they previously enjoyed.
A number of family members of older people who took part in the research reported an alarming cognitive decline in their loved ones during the first lockdown, witnessing evidence of increased confusion and forgetfulness. One in five older people, with no diagnosis of dementia, acknowledged they were finding it more difficult to remember things.
We know that the first lockdown in March 2020 brought an abrupt end to exercise groups, fitness classes, social and community events. For many older people this meant they couldn’t see their friends or family, stopped doing any physical exercises, had no routine and felt cut off from their communities and support networks.
This led to rising numbers of older people experiencing mental health issues for the first time. Anxiety - about catching Covid, the wellbeing and safety of family and the future – spiralled. Low mood and depression rose, as older people told Age UK they felt unmotivated, ‘like a prisoner in my own home’ and spoke of diminished quality of life. And of course many older people were bereaved at a time they couldn’t grieve with family and friends.
A knock-on effect of low mood and depression was a growth in reports of self-neglect – abandoning personal hygiene, not caring about appearance, increased alcohol intake, poor diet, not sleeping and a loss of motivation.
Loneliness, a public health epidemic before Covid, reached record levels. A study found that 157,000 over 65s in Scotland expected to feel lonely last Christmas, a reflection on how isolated so many older people had become.
Now, almost six months on after a four-month winter lockdown, it is highly likely that the hidden problem of chronic loneliness among older people is worse than ever.
The extent of loneliness is hard to measure but research carried out last year by Professor Anne Whittaker at the University of Stirling for the Chief Scientist Office found that 56% of over 60s said social distancing made them feel lonelier and those reported higher levels of loneliness also had poorer overall wellbeing. Neither of these issues are likely to be resolved any time soon.
Admitting they are experiencing poor mental health is quite alien to some older people. Although younger people have largely overcome the stigma of living with mental health issues, the older ‘stiff upper lip’ generations struggle to talk about their mental health with loved ones or seek help from doctors.
But mental health issues can affect anyone of any age. The impact of the pandemic on older people will have triggered mental health conditions and exacerbated existing conditions in many. There will be no sudden bounce back just because the shops and pubs are open again.
For older people who are living with mental health issues or who recognise that their mental health isn’t as robust as it was, Age Scotland provides guides to support mental health and wellbeing in later life. They offer advice and contact details for specialist organisations for anyone in need.
Here are some tips from the guide to Keeping Well to help older people look after their mental health:
Talk to people – don’t be afraid to share how you’re feeling with family, friends or your GP. They can offer support and advice. And there’s some truth in the saying, a problem shared is a problem halved. The Age Scotland helpline is also available to offer advice, information and friendship on 0800 12 44 222.
Get out and about – the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is nature. Getting outside for a walk, noticing the colours and seasonal changes, listening to the birds and enjoying the fresh air are all beneficial for physical and mental health.
Do something you enjoy – finding pleasure in ordinary activities can help lift your mood. Listening to music, reading, planting seeds or picking up the phone to call a friend can give you a boost.
Relax – it’s important to find peace in your day, whether it’s by sitting in your garden, going for a walk somewhere quiet or doing some slow yoga stretches and gentle breathing to help relax your mind and body.
Rest – mental health worries can rob you of a good night’s sleep. Speak to your GP if you’re consistently having trouble sleeping. You can also start a pre-bed routine to improve your chances of falling – and staying – asleep. Turn off the TV, have a milky drink (not coffee!) and think of things you’re grateful to relax your mind before you lie down.