Mental health in later life

Getting older and retirement both involve a change in lifestyle for most people and it's important to take care of your mental health as well as physical health.

There's an assumption that mental health problems are a 'normal' aspect of ageing but most older people don't develop mental health problems, and they can be helped if they do. While a significant number of people do develop dementia or depression in old age, they aren't an inevitable part of getting older.


Not everyone feels ready to retire at the same time. If work or career is a major part of your life, it can affect:

  • The social aspect of your life if your job also provided friendships
  • Your sense of self-worth and self-esteem if you felt valued at work
  • Your financial security.

But being retired (or semi-retired) can also be a busy phase of life because friends and family can have plans for your time - anything from child care to DIY tasks. It can be a chance to try a new activity or learn new skills and do the things that you've always wanted to do but never had the time.


Depression describes a range of moods, from feeling a bit low in mood to feeling unable to cope with everyday life. It can affect anyone, of any culture, age or background but more older people are affected than any other age group. This is because older people are much more vulnerable to factors that lead to depression, such as:

  • being widowed or divorced
  • being retired/unemployed
  • physical disability or illness
  • loneliness and isolation.

The neurobiological changes associated with getting older, prescribed medication for other conditions and genetic susceptibility (which increases with age) are also factors. There are a number of rarer mental health problems that affect older people too, including delirium, anxiety and late-onset schizophrenia.


Dementia is a decline in mental ability which affects memory, thinking, problem-solving, concentration and perception. It occurs as a result of the death of brain cells or damage in parts of the brain that deal with our thought processes.

People with dementia can become confused and some also become restless or display repetitive behaviour. They may also seem irritable, tearful or agitated which can be very distressing for both the person with dementia and their family and friends.

Alcohol abuse

Although alcohol abuse is a problem for people of all ages, it is more likely to go unrecognised among older people. Reasons for alcohol abuse in older age include bereavement and other losses, loneliness, physical ill health, disability and pain, loss of independence, boredom and depression, which is also linked to the other factors. Retirement may also provide more opportunities for drinking too much.


Prescribed medications can cause symptoms associated with mental illness in older people. Most older people are taking some kind of medication, and many are taking several at the same time. There are risks associated with taking multiple medications, including confusion.

Mental capacity and caring for others

People with dementia or severe mental illness may be unable to make and communicate decisions. Very few people are completely incapable of making any choices or decisions, but some older people may have partial or fluctuating mental capacity and may need help.

People with dementia often need special support - they may take longer to make decisions, may need an advocate to speak on their behalf and their mental functioning may also vary by day, and time of day. Family members or carers are often useful sources of information but it is important to take account of the views of the person with dementia alongside those of their carer. Being a carer isn't always easy. Many find it demanding both physically and emotionally.

Our publications about later life

How To Look After Your Mental Health In Later Life

This booklet is for people in their 60s who are approaching retirement or who have recently retired from work and gives 10 practical ways we can protect our mental health. During these big changes it's important to take care of ourselves both mentally and physically.

Becoming A Carer

Get the facts on looking after someone with dementia; ideas on where you can get practical and emotional support and advice on how to plan for the future.

An Evidence Review of the Impact of Participatory Arts on Older People

The Baring Foundation commissioned this review to provide evidence about the benefits of art activities and to support arts organisations to improve their work.

Getting On With Life

This project addressed the later life of the Baby Boomer generation, paying special attention to what must be done to safeguard their mental health, with refrence to areas such as;health and wellbeing, family and relationships, and work, occupation, retirement and financial security.

Brighter Futures

This project worked with older people to deliver a peer mentoring service aimed at improving the wellbeing and quality of life of more isolated older people through enhancing their social networks and enabling meaningful community engagement.

The Milk's In the Oven

Explains how people with dementia might behave and feel, and provides young people with information about the illness and how to cope if someone they know has dementia.

All Things Being Equal

Mental health and social care services are in need of a major shake-up to care for the growing numbers of older people with mental ill-health, and cope with the demanding nature of the baby boomer generation.