Living longer has its hidden problems

Loneliness and health issues must be tackled, says Heather Smith
Age Scotland's shop in Dalkeith. Picture: ContributedAge Scotland's shop in Dalkeith. Picture: Contributed
Age Scotland's shop in Dalkeith. Picture: Contributed

Until recently, mental health issues tended to be hidden away and considered a source of shame. Now they are much more likely to be featured in the health pages of newspapers, on our screens, and increasingly, in conversations with one another.

The growth in awareness about these often debilitating conditions is a great step forward for our society and has done a lot to help remove the stigma that surrounds them, ensuring more people are seeking the support they need. However, many of the very successful efforts in raising awareness of mental health issues have targeted younger people, and work we at Age Scotland have been doing recently suggests they are not having the impact needed amongst the older population, where there is still a huge stigma attached to mental health and a reluctance to admit to problems. Older people face many of life’s most challenging events, such as long-term health conditions or the death of loved ones. While retirement is a welcome change for many people, it can also require major adjustments.

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Too often people are forced to face these challenges alone. With the added problem of a perceived social stigma, mental health problems can continue to grow and go untreated.

Age Scotland recently spoke to groups of older people about their challenges with mental health. We found themes of loneliness and social stigma kept arising. While younger generations are often encouraged to share their feelings and seek support, many older people are reluctant to ask for help or even know where to begin searching for help. While the younger population has no issue with admitting to feeling stressed, many of the older people we talk to say they would never say they were stressed, as to do so, in their eyes, would be admitting to an inability to cope.

There is also a concern that, were they to seek help, the problems of the older generation could at times be discounted as just a normal part of getting older.

Men can find it particularly difficult to talk about or admit to how they feel. They are much less likely to seek help from family, friends, or their GP.

One man told us that “men don’t really read leaflets”.

Another said: “I didn’t know it was anxiety and depression. The GP wanted me to go to hospital ‘for a rest’ but I didn’t want to go. It took weeks to feel better – but it’s scary coming home again, cos you have all these people around you in hospital and no-one when you come home again.

“Loneliness is not something you expect. When you have your family and your work you are never really lonely. But then, when they’re gone . . . it’s harder to make new friends.”

One symptom of mental health problems can be an increasing reliance on alcohol to get through the day. A recent study by Mintel found that older people were more likely to drink at home every day, often alone. This can sometimes be a warning sign that masks depression, anxiety or loneliness.

Loneliness is often a trigger for mental health issues. More than 80,000 older people in Scotland already say they often or always feel lonely. Through our helpline, Silver Line Scotland, we hear every day from people who say they have lost their confidence, and even feel trapped in their own homes.

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It’s important to note that loneliness and isolation are not the same thing – a person might feel lonely not just due to lack of companionship but the lack of a meaningful role in society.

However, fighting physical isolation is one of the most effective ways to combat loneliness. Older people – especially those in remote areas – must be supported to remain connected and involved with their community.

By 2020, it is estimated that two in five people in the UK will be over 50 years of age, while one in five will be over 65. The fact that people are living longer, healthier lives is something we should all celebrate. For most of them, later life is a more active and fulfilling time than ever before.

But this demographic change does mean that we need to adapt healthcare services to support their needs, both physical and mental.

We need to encourage older people, and their friends, families and carers to recognise the signs of mental illness, and ensure the right support is available. And we can all do more to promote a society where the knowledge, experience and skills of people of all ages are valued.

Heather Smith is information and advice manager at Age Scotland