Mental health issues in older people are often overlooked and dismissed as “just a part of the ageing process”.
However, with that attitude, many mental health issues are missed – especially when there is more focus on individual physical wellbeing. This can lead to poor quality of life and increasing ill health for older people.
The myth that depression and anxiety are a normal part of getting older is a damaging one – and something that needs to be corrected.
Signs of sadness, lack of interest in usual activities or hobbies, or social withdrawal are often incorrectly attributed to the ageing process itself. But Justine Irving, Applied Gerontology lecturer at Flinders University, suggests this is not the case.
“Depression and anxiety are not normal at any stage of life, including our later years,” says Irving.
“Although depression and anxiety are amongst the most common mental health issues for older adults, statistics indicate that poor mental health or illness rates amongst men and women actually decline with age.”
Ever heard about the stereotype of a “grumpy old” person? Well that could not be further from the truth, as research suggests people actually become happier as they get older.
In a survey of people of different ages in 149 countries, it was found that older adults rated their life satisfaction much higher, with happiness ratings rising gradually and steadily from age 50 through the decade of the 90s.
Other studies have found that older populations tend to be more satisfied with their lives, and experience less stress, worry, and anger than middle-aged people – primarily because of their life experiences and lifestyle choices.
“There is also evidence that emotional wellbeing improves with age, and that older age is associated with more pleasant emotional experiences and better emotion regulation,” says Irving.
With age comes increased opportunities to prioritise activities that are personally meaningful and spend time with people we care about and who make us happy.
Ongoing employment, volunteering, physical activity, sufficient sleep and lifelong learning can all help to support mental health and wellbeing as we age.
“Maintaining an optimistic view of ageing, an enduring sense of purpose, personal resilience and strong social networks are positive influences on emotional wellbeing for older people,” says Irving.
As Australia’s population ages, there is growing demand for skilled staff who are equipped to deal with mental health issues across the lifespan.
“To effectively support positive mental health in later life, it is crucial that health and aged care professionals understand and recognise any developing or ongoing mental health issues in older people,” says Irving.
Flinders University’s online Bachelor of Healthy Ageing has been designed to enable students to explore and understand a range of topics associated with ageing; including mental health and wellbeing.
As the only degree of its kind in Australia, Irving says it prepares graduates to not only work with older people, but to develop the skills and knowledge required to respond to and support ageing societies.
One of the key topics taught by Irving is Mental Health and Psychological Well-being in Later Life; focused specifically on supporting good mental and psychological health across the life span. Based on an applied approach to teaching and learning, students are taught skills and knowledge they can in turn use in diverse roles and workplace settings.
This flexible online degree is ideal for undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing formal qualifications in ageing studies, or professionals who may wish to enhance their understanding of the ageing process as it relates to their work.
It’s an important step to help better prepare and educate future students, policy makers, educators, health professionals, advocates and other professionals to meet the needs, challenges and opportunities associated with an ageing population.
Enrolments are open four times throughout the year, with Commonwealth supported places available. For more information or to apply, visit flinders.edu.au/online/healthy-ageing.
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