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Talking to older people about mental health

November 30, 2020

For adults in their seventies, eighties and nineties who are feeling down or anxious, having a conversation about what they’re experiencing can be extremely helpful, and open the door to seeking treatment.

If you’re worried that an older person you know is having difficulties with their mental health – perhaps they’ve mentioned not feeling right, or you’ve noticed symptoms of anxiety or depression – there are ways you can support them.

So, how do you start the conversation?

“First, you could ask questions to get them to open up and discuss their feelings,” suggests psychological therapist Joanne Adams. “Use the same language they would use: if they say ‘my nerves are bad’, for example, keep on using this term.”

Try asking them questions like:

  • How long have you been feeling like this? Have you experienced it before?
  • Would you like to change how you feel? What would you like to be different?
  • Did you know you can learn ways to stop that from happening?
  • Have you thought about seeking some kind of support or treatment?

If they want to do something about how they feel, you could encourage them to talk to their GP, or help them to explore resources such as blogs, books and self-help podcasts. Where appropriate, you can plant the seed that they might think about having therapy.

There may be some barriers to overcome; older adults may have less awareness of mental health issues than younger generations, or be less comfortable talking about their problems. You can help to address any assumptions they hold that are incorrect.

Sometimes this might be to do with the patient’s age – they may believe that therapy simply wouldn’t work, as it’s too late for them to change.

Joanne Adams says: “The fact is that older adults generally respond extremely well to CBT. In a sample of ieso’s online therapy patients, older people were more likely than younger ones to recover from their difficulties. They tend to have plenty of life experiences to draw from to help them cope with their difficulties, as well as a clear idea of what’s important to them.”

Another assumption is that it’s inevitable people will get depressed as they get older, especially if they’re not going out much at the moment, they’ve lost friends or a spouse, or they have physical health problems.

Research actually shows that people tend to get happier and report greater life satisfaction as they age, and anxiety and depression are not an inherent part of getting older.

Some individuals may simply not be used to putting themselves first, or set great store by putting on a brave face, getting on with things and not complaining. Perhaps they believe they’re ‘not poorly enough’, or that therapists’ time would be better spent treating someone younger.

“If this is the case, you could ask them to imagine a good friend is telling them they weren’t worth the bother, for example,” advises Joanne Adams. “Chances are they would encourage that friend to tackle their problem.”

It’s possible the individual has preconceptions or beliefs about therapy that are inaccurate or out of date. There may be an element of fear or mistrust. Try to find out more about what their fears are, and what might have influenced them.

You could then help to address these by researching the types of therapy they might be interested in and sharing what you learn, explaining and describing what the process is like. You can find out more about what CBT involves on the ieso website.

If an older person you know has been complaining about feeling low or worried, and you can see it’s impacting on their life, please do talk to them about it if you feel you can. It might take time for them to open up – and that’s ok. Simply having a bit of knowledge about how therapy works, and helping them to address any preconceptions and explore the possibility of treatment could have a really positive effect.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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