Three mental health problems most likely to affect retirees

And how to get help

Retirement is a life stage many of us look forward to. Without the pressures of work, there’s more time to spend on hobbies, family and friends.

But for some, later life isn’t the joyous time they dreamed of. If stress, anxiety and depression are affecting your life, there are many things you can try that can help.

By Dee Pilgrim

Half of adults aged 65 and over have experienced common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, according to charity Age UK 1. These, along with dementia, are now the three major mental issues facing people as they age.

Yet many older people are still reluctant to open up about their mental health, as Caroline Abrahams, Age UK Director, explains: “In recent years there’s been nothing short of a cultural revolution in our willingness to be open about mental ill health, which is an essential pre-condition to people getting help, but it is one that may well have left many older people behind. They grew up in an era when there was a real stigma associated with mental illness and, for many, these attitudes are deeply engrained.

“There’s a widespread lack of awareness about effective treatments, beyond ‘taking pills’, which many older people feel they do quite enough of already. And finally, it is understandable if a lot of older people, having seen so much and having experienced so many ups and downs through life, take the view that feeling depressed or anxious is just something they have to put up with, not illnesses that are deserving of a proper medical response.”

Bereavement, divorce, their own ill health or that of their partners or other family members, isolation and financial worries are the most common triggers for mental health problems. These can lead to loneliness and mental distress.

Depression

The most common mental disorder in older people is depression. Nearly half of adults (7.7million) aged over 55 say they have experienced depression according to YouGov research for Age UK. Symptoms include low mood, reduced enjoyment, lack of energy, low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness, lack of appetite, weight loss, disrupted sleep patterns and poor concentration.

How to get help

One of the best ways to combat depression is to make sure you have someone to talk to. You may feel like keeping to yourself, especially when your mood is low, but it is important to stay in touch with friends and family. Charities such as Age UK, MIND and the Samaritans all have helplines you can call for advice.

Exercising for as little as 20 minutes a day can help lift your mood, so get out in the fresh air. You may be tempted to ‘drown your sorrows’ by excessive drinking but this can lead to you feeling more depressed, so watch your alcohol intake. Best of all is to make sure you have a routine to stick to during the day, with regular meal and bedtimes.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor because there are many medications and therapies they can suggest, as Alistair Burns, National Clinical Director for Dementia, NHS England, explains: “Depression and anxiety in people over 55 can often go unnoticed and untreated. Older people mustn’t miss out on help and treatment because of a ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to dealing with problems, or because they aren’t offered or don’t know where to go for help.”

Anxiety

Like depression, anxiety is very common in retirees, and people can often suffer from the two problems together. Around 7.3 million people in the UK say they have suffered from anxiety, according to the YouGov research. However, the real figure may be larger than this because older adults tend to emphasise physical problems rather than mental symptoms. Women in this age group are more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men.

Symptoms of anxiety can include a general feeling of unease or that you’re losing control, sweating, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath and feeling sick. If anxiety becomes extreme it can lead to panic attacks. These usually last between 5 to 30 minutes and can be very frightening.

How to get help

If you’re feeling anxious there are many ways you can treat the issue. Try talking about your feelings to a friend or family member. Mindfulness techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises can make you feel calmer while eating regular meals will keep your blood and energy levels stable.

Take some exercise such as running, walking, swimming or yoga to help you relax, while joining a group or club will help with feelings of loneliness or isolation.

If none of this helps, you need to talk to your doctor about how you are feeling. They can prescribe medication or a talking therapy such as counselling. Research has shown older people respond extremely well to talking therapies.

Dementia

This condition can affect a person’s memory, thinking, problem-solving, concentration and perception. Around 850,000 people in the UK have dementia and your chance of developing the disease increases as you age. One in 14 people over 65 years has dementia, and 1 in 6 people over the age of 80. It’s also more common in women than men . 

People with dementia can become confused and some also become restless or irritable, tearful or agitated which can be very distressing.

Dementia is progressive, which means the symptoms will get worse over time although the severity of symptoms can vary from day to day. However, many people living with dementia lead active and fulfilling lives for many years, although they often need special support.

How to get help

With dementia, it's essential to get an early diagnosis in order to get the best treatment, so do speak to your doctor or a specialist health and social care professional as soon as you notice any symptoms. Although there is no cure, there are medications that can slow the progress of the disease and relieve some of the symptoms. Your doctor will also be able to arrange a memory assessment session and a care plan which should be reviewed at least once a year.

Fiona Carragher, Director of Research and Influencing at the Alzheimer’s Society says: “There are lots of things people with dementia can do to live as well as possible. It’s important to stay positive and focus on the things you can still do and enjoy. Try to stay active and keep in touch with people. This can help you to retain your skills and memory, as well as improve your self-esteem, sleep and wellbeing. Wherever possible, keep doing what you enjoy, even if you have to do it a little differently.”

Health insurance and other places to get help

If you have health insurance with us, you can access the 24-hour stress helpline where you can talk to an experienced counsellor. You can increase standard health cover to include mental health treatment and can enhance your core out-patient cover to include treatment as an in-patient or day-patient if you are diagnosed with an acute psychiatric condition.

  • Age UK has a free guide called Your Mind Matters focusing on improving mental wellbeing which is available on www.ageuk.org.uk and via the Advice Line on 0800 169 6565.
  • The NHS website has lots of advice on stress, anxiety and depression.
  • National Mind information line is available 0300 123 3393 (Monday-Friday 9am to 6pm).
  •  You can call The Silver Line for a chat 0800 470 80 90 is available 24/7 365 days a year.
  • If you’d like to find out more information about dementia, visit www.alzheimers.org.uk. It has a Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456.
  • Anxiety UK has a chat line on 03444 775 774 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 10pm; Saturday to Sunday, 10am to 8pm). www.anxietyuk.org.uk.
  • The Samaritans offer confidential support on 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline).

Look after yourself in retirement

See more tips and ideas on taking care of yourself, from staying healthy to seeing the world.