Depression in the elderly - Old man looking sad and lonely

Depression and loneliness
in aged care

  • Depression in aged care facilities is very common. More than half of residents in permanent residential aged care show signs of depression.
  • Loneliness and isolation are among the most common contributors to depression in the elderly.
  • Sincere social contact can make a big difference to someone’s outlook and mental health.

 


Our population is ageing. One in seven Australians are currently aged 65 and that figure is expected to increase to more than one in five by 2066.

With an ageing population comes demand for aged care facilities and infrastructure. For instance, northern Queensland has around 150 aged care services that accommodate around 5,800 beds. These figures are also expected to increase.

Australians enjoy one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. Our world-class medical system is a significant reason behind our good health. Nonetheless, retirement and longer life can bring with it not only physical health problems, but mental health challenges too.

For one thing, more than half of people in permanent residential aged care show signs of depression.

 

Loneliness and old age

There is more evidence than ever that shows loneliness has a profound effect on our wellbeing. Loneliness is closely related to many mental, physical and social health problems, so much so that some researchers believe that loneliness lies at the heart of almost all mental illnesses. Indeed, the ill effects of loneliness can very much affect physical health — and may even lead to early death.

Research on the effects of loneliness is steadily gaining widespread acceptance. In fact, loneliness might soon be regarded as the next major public health epidemic, much like it occurred with public concern about obesity. While that may sound far-fetched, keep in mind that it wasn’t so long ago that the UK appointed its first Minister for Loneliness.

Loneliness affects all levels of society. Yet, for many reasons, it seems to be a common problem among our elderly population. Indeed, for all the money that goes into aged care, you don’t need an academic degree to realise that life in a residential facility can be lonely and isolating.

 

How can we help?

Reaching out and talking to someone can help combat loneliness and depression, regardless of age. Quite simply, social contact and connection is fundamental to good mental health.

You may know someone who is in care, whether it’s assisted living or residential care. You may have not spoken or visited them for a while (and as is very common, perhaps you feel a little guilty about it?). Here are some things to keep in mind when reaching out or seeing that elderly person.

Don’t put it off

We all have busy lives. Kids, work, holidays, socialising, and finishing that long-overdue project in the back yard are all important. Instead of putting it off, make a commitment to pay your loved one a visit. You may regret it if you leave it too long.

Talk to them like an adult

Too often, we talk down to our elders — and we may not even realise it. The term “infantilisation” means to talk to someone like they’re a child. Using language like “yes, deary” and thinking of (or even referring to) someone as “a little old lady” is inherently patronising.

In one historic study, the language and attitudes of staff in aged day care facilities were found to have an effect on their elderly clients. When the attitudes and language of staff were more “infantilised” and patronising, clients were less likely to socialise with each other. The reverse was also true.

Remember, the fact that someone doesn’t speak up about something doesn’t mean they’re not bothered by it.

Accept that depression or loneliness may be real

The person you’re visiting may be feeling lonely or depressed for a number of reasons.

  • They may worry about their health, life situation, or are frustrated with the conditions or bureaucracy.
  • They may be experiencing loss due to the death of a sibling, spouse or friend.
  • They may be socially isolated due to reduced personal mobility or lack of transport.
  • They may experience unexplained aches, pains, dizziness, insomnia, constipation, rashes, and other health problems that are hard to diagnose. Forgetfulness or memory loss may also be a factor.
  • In some cases, they may even be closely exposed to people suffering from dementia or other chronic illnesses.

How would you respond if you were living in these circumstances and someone asked you how you were doing? Would you say you’re happy? Would you complain?

The situation may not, at that moment, bring much life satisfaction — but having someone to talk to is likely to have some improvement on their outlook.

Keep your expectations realistic

Some people are better communicators than others. Indeed, many people (and particularly many older people) did not grow up in an environment where talking about emotional stresses, worries and problems was the “done thing”. In short, not every conversation will lead a better outcome.

Nonetheless, the act of talking about one’s problems and having some kind of human connection will at least help how they perceive their situation.

For example, it’s unlikely that you can change someone’s circumstances if they bemoan their life situation (“I’m going blind” or “I can’t get to the shops any more”).

What you can do, however, is be a good listener. Sincere responses like “that must be really tough” and “I’m sorry to hear about that” may not change what has happened. However, having someone to talk to and listen can affect their outlook and mood.

 

Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.