The Mental Health Experiences of Older People During the Pandemic

Too many older people's mental health needs were invisible before COVID-19,1 and the pandemic has only exacerbated this problem.

Joint report from the Mental Health Foundation and Independent Age.

An older person is commonly understood as someone who is over the age of 65. However, it is important to note that there is huge diversity in older age, and each person will have different physical and mental capacities that are related to more than just their chronological age3. The Office for National Statistics estimates that nearly one in five of the UK population (19%) is made up of people aged over 65, which underlines the importance of ensuring that any mental health response addresses the divergence of older people's needs and experiences.

Mental health or mental wellbeing refers to our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing, and fluctuates as we move through different stages of life. It affects how we think, feel and act. Therefore, when we have good mental health we are generally able to think, feel and act in a way that feels right for us; conversely, when we are struggling with our mental health this can become a lot harder.

Prior to the pandemic, one in four older people lived with a mental health condition, the most common being depression, which affects around 28% of women and 22% of men, followed closely by anxiety5. The prevalence of mental health problems is higher among specific groups of older people, such as those living in care homes, older carers, older people going through bereavement and those who have multi-morbidities, which is common among older people.

Key messages

  • Many people in later life have coped well and shown resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some having positive experiences of neighbourly support and closer links with friends and relatives. However, others have faced challenges that have caused worry and anxiety and negatively affected their mental health and wellbeing
  • Significant, often overlapping, challenges include bereavement, chronic loneliness, long-term or voluntary shielding, deterioration in physical health, mobility or confidence, difficulties accessing health services and challenges using public transport. Due to these, some will have experienced poor mental health and are likely to have mental health support needs
  • For some older people, the end of lockdown restrictions did not make much difference: there was no happy 'return to normal. They will continue to face the same illness, loneliness or isolation, or a combination of these, as they did before and/or during the pandemic¬†
  • The pandemic has highlighted the value and importance of being digitally connected, especially for social connection and contact with health professionals and other care providers. While some older people have benefited from this during the pandemic, many others are digitally excluded or prefer other types of contact. Ensuring people have a choice of how they connect with health and care services is essential
  • Important coping strategies for some people in later life have been going for a walk outside, contacting family, spending time in green spaces, and keeping up to date with relevant information. However, many have been unable to do this, which has negatively affected both their physical and mental health
  • As we look to winter and beyond, governments must ensure that their mental health wellbeing and recovery plans fully consider the needs of people in later life. This must include a focus on social connection, bereavement support, and appropriate routes to access treatment and care to bolster people's mental health

For more information, please download the full report