Older People's Mental Health Matters too...
It's good news that the taboo surrounding any discussion of mental health is lifting. Churches and Christian charities are becoming increasingly aware that they need to be equipped to support those wrestling with mental health issues. But in all of the growing discussions on these issues, I hear little, if any, discussion about mental health as experienced by older people. As people grow older, some find the experience of ageing increasingly difficult to cope with. We are living longer, but not always better. With our preoccupation with eternal youth, few are prepared for the realities of ageing. The great Christian leader and preacher John Stott said, ‘I knew I needed to prepare to die. I didn’t know I needed to prepare to be old’.
Some of the issues that older people face...
I used to enjoy the status that went with my job. But who am I now that I have retired? What is my purpose?
I have to decide how I spend each day. It’s not always easy to meet up with friends. My energy levels are getting lower, I am going out less.
People used to come to me for advice. But my knowledge and experience are increasingly irrelevant. The phone has stopped ringing. I feel out of touch with society.
The church used to ask me to get involved in their activities, to help. Now they want someone younger, cooler. I am not needed and I sometimes feel as though I am not wanted.
I am worried about my finances. How long am I going to live? Will I have enough money? Perhaps I shouldn’t go on that holiday, or buy a new dress or go on that outing.
I’m actually scared of getting older. How long will I be able to cope on my own? How and when will I die? There’s no-one to talk to about it.
Now that my husband/wife has died I struggle to make the effort to see people or do things. I hate asking people for help.
All the issues above can be triggers for social isolation and loneliness. Loneliness is not just something unfortunate, it is not just one of those things. It is a risk factor for more serious mental illness: for cognitive decline, dementia (lonely people are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease), depression (It is estimated that 25% of older people have symptoms of depression) and anxiety.
51% of people over 75 live alone (ONS, 2010). Not all of those will feel lonely, but many of them will. According to a survey carried out for the Jo Cox commission on loneliness, almost three-quarters of older people in the UK are lonely. It’s hard to admit that you are lonely. It feels like a failure. Friends and/or family may have no idea what a person might be going through. I wonder how many older people in our churches are lonely, anxious or depressed? Perhaps we have no idea, perhaps we have never thought about it. Many of that generation keep their troubles to themselves. It is probably fair to assume that many of them struggle in these areas.
Is there anything that we can do?
Find someone to befriend the older people in your church, to take an interest. Find ways of including older people in the life of the church. If you have students in your congregation, they may enjoy getting to know someone who is older, a grandparent figure. Make a point of asking older people for their help. It may take more effort – not all are online – but they may have a wealth of untapped skills. The one thing that older people have is time. If would make so much difference to them if they felt it was being used well. Ask older people to pray for the life of the church. Evening meetings are difficult for some, but they could pray at home. Give them specific events/people/situations to pray for. Give them updates. Tell them about answered prayers. And always thank them. Consider having an event especially for older people. It could be an opportunity to discuss the difficulties of ageing, of facing death. Notice if someone does not turn up to church. They may be ill. A visit would mean so much; it would reassure them that they still belong.
Let’s try and find ways to show our older people that they matter; they matter to God and they matter to us. Let’s build communities where they can flourish at every stage of the ageing process, and where loneliness can be assuaged. At difficult times in people’s lives, shouldn’t the church be there?
Dr Fi Costa originally trained at the Royal College of Music and, as a research fellow at the University of Roehampton, is currently involved in a number of research projects exploring the effectiveness of music in reducing anxiety, depression and stress in the older population; including those with Alzheimer’s disease. Fi Costa has worked with older people, both within and outside of the church context for the past ten years.