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 (9 December 2021), 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.
Deborah Alsina, Chief Executive of Independent Age, said: “Too many older people’s mental health needs were invisible before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this problem. For some older people, the end of lockdown restrictions in the summer did not make much difference: there was no happy ‘return to normal’ for them.
“They continue to face the same illness, worsening mobility, grief, loneliness or isolation – often in combination – as they did before and during the pandemic. The government and NHS must not overlook how the pandemic has affected older people’s mental health or the barriers that prevent many of them from getting the help they need.”
The charities’ joint research into how older people experienced the pandemic found a very mixed picture.
Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said: “While some older people have found ways of coping, such as drawing on past experiences of adversity, experiencing enhanced support from neighbours, family and friends, and spending time in nature, others have faced serious challenges and suffered as a result.
“Fear, loneliness, bereavement, lack of social contact, the inability to do the things that previously benefitted their mental and physical health, loss of face-to-face contact and the death of people close to them, have all affected their lives and mental health. Similarly, whilst some have enjoyed the virtual connection conferred by digital technology, others have not, disliking it as a means of contact, or lacking the skills and/or equipment to benefit from it.
“In addition, Christmas can be a very lonely time for them and increase feelings of isolation. Older people should be involved in identifying what will help their recovery and have a choice in how it occurs. Connection and relationships are crucial to this, and must be valued and enabled in creative and flexible ways.”
Quotes from research participants:
Elizabeth (age range 70 to 74):
“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.”
Natalie (age range 90+):
“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].’”
Isaac (age range 60 to 64):
“Yeah, that’s what keeps me going, is helping other people.”
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 effect of the pandemic, now is a crucial 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 advertise 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 prevent 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.
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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