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Why I study mental health in older adults

This week’s blog post is from Alexandra Schmidt. Ali tells the story of her friend B who is now in her eighties and how rewarding she has found their relationship. Ali started her PhD in 2019 at the University of Sussex. She is studying anxiety and depression in older people.


Often when I explain my PhD project to other people, I get comments such as ‘I thought older people just get on with it’ etc. Few people appear to be thinking about the huge amount of change that happens in later life that could impact the mental health of older adults, such as (chronic) physical conditions, losing mobility and independence, lack of sense of purpose after retirement, loss of partners or friends and associated social isolation and loneliness. Whilst some research shows older adults might be better than younger adults at regulating their emotions and dealing with negative events, this should be considered in the context of the potentially rapidly changing circumstances as a person gets older.


Older adults may face certain difficulties talking about their mental health problems as this was a much more stigmatised topic when they were growing up. Another reason may be that older adults consider their problems as a ‘normal’ part of ageing and therefore do not think that any help could be provided. These are all important issues that need to be addressed, but today I would like to talk about something that anyone can do to help make the lives of older adult more enjoyable.


For a number of years I have been befriending B., an elderly lady in her 80s. I think her story highlights a number of the aforementioned issues: she was a very independent and socially active lady when I first met her, but within 2 years of meeting her, her situation has changed rapidly. Feeling increasingly unsteady physically and therefore anxious to go out, she had a fall which resulted in several hospital visits and eventually meant she had to move to a care home. This unfortunately also meant that she lost touch with longstanding friends and had to come to terms with losing her home and independence. As a befriender, I’m either visiting (or in lockdown times telephoning) her once a week and we have a cup of tea together and chat about anything. I know she appreciates my visits and friendship, and I also find this a very rewarding experience - plus I get to hear many interesting stories about ‘old’ Brighton! Speaking to her also helps me understanding the situation older people find themselves in much better and therefore provides me a different insight into my research.


Visiting B. in the care home in Covid times


There is more about befriending on the National Befriending Week website (https://www.befriending.co.uk). Many charities like the one I’m working with organise pairings of volunteers and people that seek companionship. I would urge anyone to consider getting involved in something like this as it makes a real difference to older people and is a hugely rewarding activity to be involved in!

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