Older people’s mental health under threat as pandemic continues, charities warn
The mental health of many of the UK’s 12.5 million older adults could deteriorate in the coming months as high infection levels and the Omicron variant leave some fearful and isolated at home, two charities are warning.
In research published today, the Mental Health Foundation and Independent Age say the pandemic has already damaged the emotional and physical health of some people aged over 65.
In The Mental Health Experiences of Older People During the Pandemic, the two charities call for more support for older adults’ mental health, as the pandemic continues.
Their recommendations include increased bereavement support and more referrals to NHS counselling, the latter of which benefits the over-65s more than any other age group. Also recommended is digital skills training, to help more older people get vital social contact and the health and other services they need.
The charities’ joint research into how older people experienced the pandemic found a very mixed picture.
Quotes from research participants (all names have been changed)
“To be in this flat entirely on your own, I mean, I don’t know what I’d do without my little iPad. That is a big part of my life.” (Barbara, 85-89)
”[The jab] has made me want to go out now, which I didn’t want to do before. I waited… they say you’ve got to wait for it, it takes three weeks to get into your immune system…” (June, 60-64)
"The worst thing has been the loneliness… I can spend [so much time] not talking to anybody, fifteen or more hours a day, not talking to a single soul." (Martin, 75-79)
"It annoys me that everyone thinks that people of my age should be doing everything online. I can do a lot online, but so many others can't." (Elizabeth, 70-74)
“I have had double pneumonia, I have had a clot on my lung, I have had scarlet fever, I have had rheumatic fever. I could go on forever with what I have had. I think that in itself, maybe, I was born with this inbuilt ability to cope. I don't know, but it makes you stronger and you think, ‘Well what will happen will happen, what doesn't, [doesn’t].’ ” (Natalie, 90+)
"Yeah, that’s what keeps me going, is helping other people". (Isaac, 60-64)
As many as 318,000 people in England and Wales aged over 65 lost their partners between the first lockdown and the ‘unlocking’ of May 2021, Independent Age estimates, and this is an issue that affects older adults in the whole of the UK.
Many such bereavements were especially hard to cope with, due to tight restrictions at the time, including on funerals and on face-to-face meetings where people who had been bereaved could have got support from friends and family.
Other strains on the mental health of many older people have included shielding, loss of their usual exercise (such as swimming pools and classes), consequent loss of mobility, loss of normal contact with friends and others and finding it hard to contact health professionals.
The two charities built up a picture of older people’s experiences of the pandemic by combining data from the Mental Health Foundation’s ongoing study of the period since March 2020 with information from in-depth interviews carried out between April and June 2021 with 14 people aged between their 60s and their 90s.
The new report calls on public health authorities across the UK to create new mental health campaigns tailored to reach older people, to help them look after their mental health, including by getting professional help if they need it.
Older people’s awareness – and use – of NHS counselling is low, but research suggests that they benefit from it more than any other age group. In light of the impact of the pandemic, now is a key time for the government and NHS to develop innovative actions to help more people in later life access this vital service.
Independent Age and the Mental Health Foundation are also urging supermarkets, hairdressers, faith centres and other places where older adults spend time to help promote bereavement support to bereaved people over 65, who may not be online, may not know such support exists and may not want to tell professionals that they are struggling.
Another recommendation is for national governments, local authorities and care home providers to work together to help older adults who want to use the internet, including by offering digital skills and confidence training. This would help to counter some people’s loneliness, which undermines their mental and physical health.
At present, more than two million people over 65 are thought to be digitally excluded, meaning they can’t use the internet because they can’t afford it, or live in a place with poor connectivity or lack the necessary skills and/or confidence.
However, the report also argues that older people who prefer to communicate using the telephone or in writing must be able to get the health and other services and support they need via these means.
Notes to editors
For media enquiries please contact: Rachel Baird or Fran Edwards in the Mental Health Foundation media office: [email protected] 07702 873 939
Amy Dodge, Media Communications Manager at Independent Age, [email protected], 07732 691466
About Independent Age
We offer regular friendly contact, a strong campaigning voice and free, impartial advice on the issues that matter to older people: care and support, money and benefits, health and mobility. A charity founded over 150 years ago, we are independent so older people can be too. For more information, visit our website www.independentage.org.
Arrange to speak to one of our advisers for free and confidential advice and information. Freephone 0800 319 6789 or email [email protected].
To make a donation or find out more about how you can support the work of Independent Age and help older people stay independent, please visit independentage.org/support-us.
About the Mental Health Foundation
Our vision is of good mental health for all. The Mental Health Foundation works to prevent mental health problems. We drive change towards a mentally healthy society for all and support communities, families and individuals to lead mentally healthy lives, with a particular focus on those at greatest risk. The Mental Health Foundation is also the home of Mental Health Awareness Week. For more information, visit our website: www.mentalhealth.org.uk