Mental health in later life

As we get older, changes in our lives such as retirement, bereavement or physical illness can affect our mental health.

Mental health problems aren’t an inevitable part of ageing, however. Most older people don’t develop mental health problems, and there is help available if you do. If you’re struggling to manage or not feeling like yourself, you don’t have to put up with it.

Find out how to look after your mental health in later life with our free guide.

*Last updated: 23 August 2021

What might affect my mental health in later life?

Some of the changes that can come with later life can affect our mental health.

Retirement

For many of us, work can bring a sense of purpose and boost our self-esteem. It can also bring friendships, give our days structure and – of course – provide financial security.

Even if you’ve looked forward to retiring, it can come with a sense of loss. You can find you’re struggling to understand who you are now, especially if work gave you a strong sense of identity. If you have a partner, your relationship may change if you’re both adjusting to you spending more time at home. You may feel lonely if you enjoyed the social side of work.

There are things you can do to make retirement easier.

  • Get your finances in order. Claim your State Pension, track down old private pensions and check whether there are any benefits you can claim. The older people’s charity Independent Age has an online benefits calculator as well as a helpline you can call for advice.
  • Develop a routine. If you’re used to planning your day around your job, it can feel strange not to have that structure. It might help to keep getting up, eating, and going to bed at the same time each day. Plan in regular activities such as exercise, volunteering and socialising.
  • Find social support. Whether that’s keeping up old friendships or finding new ones through clubs or groups, keeping up your social life can help you feel better.
  • Try something new. Retirement can be a chance to try a new activity, learn new skills, or do something you’ve never had time for.
  • Volunteer. Think about how your skills can be put to use, whether that’s helping a local community organisation or doing conservation work, for example.

Bereavement

The death of someone close to you can be devastating. Grief affects us all differently. There’s no right or wrong way to feel and no timescale for when you ‘should’ feel more like yourself again.

You may feel sad, angry, anxious, guilty, shocked or hopeless. Or you may feel relief or mixed emotions, especially if the person who died was ill for a long time. You don’t need to be ashamed of whatever you’re feeling.

Grief can affect you physically. You may have headaches, muscle pains, lose your appetite or struggle to sleep properly or concentrate.

Our webpage on change, loss and bereavement was developed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but has useful information for looking after yourself following any kind of bereavement. Age UK also has a guide on coping with bereavement.

Physical illness or disability

Poor physical health can affect your mental wellbeing and quality of life. It can make it harder to get out and do the things you enjoy, which can make you feel depressed or anxious. Read our page on physical health and mental health to find out more, including ways to improve your physical and mental wellbeing.

Medication

Most older people are taking some medication, and many are taking more than one. As we get older, the way we process medications changes. We’re more susceptible to side-effects such as nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite and muscle weakness. Some side-effects such as low mood, confusion and delirium can appear to be the symptoms of a mental illness, even though they’re not.

If you’re worried your medicines are causing side-effects or you don’t think you need them any more, arrange a medicine review with your GP.

Loneliness

While we all feel lonely at times, some experiences of older age may make it more likely: the death of someone close, health problems that make it harder to get out, retirement or being a carer. It can be hard to talk about, but there’s no shame in being lonely.

Independent Age has useful information on dealing with loneliness including tips on ways to stay connected, meet new people and value time spent on your own. They also have a befriending scheme, as does Age UK. You can sign up and enjoy chatting with someone regularly over the phone or face-to-face.

Becoming a carer

Caring for someone can be rewarding but also exhausting, time consuming and costly. It can be easy to neglect your own health while you’re looking after someone else. You can be more vulnerable to developing stress, depression or anxiety.

There is help available: you don’t have to keep going on your own. Independent Age has more information on the practical, financial and emotional support available to carers. Local Age UKs offer support groups and respite services.

Mental health problems in later life

While it’s possible to develop any mental health condition in later life, some are more common than others.

Depression

One in four older people experience depression but fewer than one in six seek help from their GP. Even more people in care homes are affected: around four in ten residents experience depression.

Common symptoms include feeling sad, hopeless, guilty, tearful, worried or unable to enjoy things. Older people often have more physical symptoms, which can include sleep problems, loss of appetite, constipation, tiredness and loss of interest in sex. You can read more on our page about depression.

Depression isn’t an inevitable part of getting older. Support is available no matter what your age and no matter how long you’ve felt depressed. Talk to your GP so they can help you find the right treatment, such as counselling, medication or self-help. Independent Age has a guide on depression that you may find helpful.

Dementia

Dementia is a decline in mental ability which affects memory, thinking, problem-solving, concentration and perception.

While there isn’t a cure for dementia, there are treatments that can help people live well with it. There are also things you can do to reduce your risk of developing it. Read our page on dementia to find out more.

Drinking too much alcohol

People of all ages can find themselves drinking too much, but it’s more likely to go unrecognised among older people. You might find yourself drinking more if you’re lonely, unwell, in pain, depressed or bored.

Too much alcohol can lead to low mood and anxiety. It can also cause sleep problems, dizziness, memory problems and damage your liver, heart and brain over time. Our bodies become more sensitive to alcohol as we get older, so it’s likely to affect you more than younger people.

If you’re worried about your drinking, talk to your GP. Drink Aware can also help you understand if your drinking is putting your health at risk and has strategies on how to cut down or stop.

Severe mental illness

While severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia usually develop in your teens or early 20s, it’s possible to be affected by them for the first time in later life. You can be treated with talking therapy or antipsychotic medication in the same way as younger people. Speak to your GP if you’re concerned about any symptoms.

What can I do to improve my mental health in later life?

Our guide on how to look after your mental health in later life has practical tips on staying mentally well.

Planning ahead, asking for support if you need it, taking care of your physical and mental wellbeing and making time for the things you love can help you enjoy your later life.