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Opinion: You’re never too old to talk – so don't overlook older people's mental health

Some great strides have been made in this country in recent years to tackle mental health issues, but let’s make sure all people in society are cared for.

Shane Kelly

MORE AND MORE people in Ireland are opening up about the personal problems that they face, but for the elderly talking about mental health issues remains a difficult topic. In part, this is a generational issue.

Irish people who are at or over retirement age may feel less comfortable discussing their problems because when they were growing up it was not deemed normal or socially acceptable to openly talk about mental health problems. In recent years, we have all learned about the tragic consequences that befell people who were brave enough to speak out or were open about such problems, with many of them having been sent to institutions and homes.

The unwillingness of elderly people to seek help is also partly due to the fact that they face a different set of issues than the rest of the adult population, and may not feel that their problems will be understood or taken seriously.

While people in their 30s, 40s and 50s face work, mortgage and family pressures – and all of the other, associated problems that come with those issues – the elderly are trying to cope with a different set of problems, including loneliness, loss due to bereavement and a lack of financial security after they retire.

The lack of engagement by the elderly about their problems is not merely anecdotal either; the IACP’s own data, from 2012, shows that almost one in four (23%) of elderly people in Ireland keep their problems to themselves. This rate is almost twice the rate of the general adult population – or 13% – who would not tell anyone about their problems. Our figures also show that only half (49%) of over-65s would discuss their problems with a friend or family member, compared to 70% of all adults.

This data is supported by a more recent study, released last month by St James’s Hospital and supported by Age Friendly Ireland, which showed that one-third of over-65 in Ireland were affected by loneliness. Unfortunately, the IACP’s data shows that only one in five people in Connaught and 22% of inhabitants of Munster would ever consider seeking professional help, compared to nearly one third of people living in Dublin.

Coupled with the fact that the farming community is more likely to face mental health issues than urban dwellers, all of this data points for a pressing need to put a greater focus on needs on the elderly and the problems that they face.

The IACP applauds many of the great initiatives around the country to promote the well-being of our elderly people, and on World Mental Health Day, we are calling on the elderly to talk to friends, family, relatives or even a professional psychotherapist.
Equally, if anyone reading this has an elderly neighbour, friend or relative, we would encourage them to reach out and talk to them.

It’s good to talk, no matter what age you are, and discussing your problems can be of huge benefit. It’s also important for the elderly to understand that there’s no reason to feel embarrassed. The therapeutic process can help alleviate difficulties for people who are experiencing problems in a range of areas.

Some great strides have been made in this country in recent years to tackle mental health issues among the youth and adult populations. Let’s now turn our attention to the elderly and make sure that they realise that you’re never too old to talk.

Shane Kelly is Professional Services Manager with the Irish Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (IACP). www.iacp.ie

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Shane Kelly

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