The Road to Addressing Mental Health Concerns Among Aged Care Residents

Understanding the world that elderly Australians face as they transition into care is not simply a luxury - it is essential. [Unsplash]

Australia is getting older – and with that, comes an increasing number of elderly Australians who are entering aged care facilities, particularly later in life.

This can be a challenging experience – often, a transition from home to an aged care facility can raise mental health concerns, particularly around how they may be coping with the feeling of being in such a radically different environment.

For medical practitioners, understanding how a patient is coping with a challenging situation is critical. For those with mental health training, such as DMP-PMHNP graduates and mental health nurses, it can help inform them of potential treatment pathways.

The Challenge of Change

Change can be particularly challenging – whether you’re dealing with the impact of a loss, a new financial situation, or a changed physical environment, the feelings and emotions that change can draw up can vary from person to person.

A lot of coverage online explores the impact that change has on children – often citing the challenges that characters in hit children’s animation Bluey deal with scenarios such as being unable to ride a bike.

These insights can be quite helpful for parents – as they can come to terms with how their children are feeling, and work through strategies and solutions that help them manage change in a way that’s understandable for the child.

In recent years, an increasing number of documentary series have sought to explore aged care facilities, particularly with residents that have been in place for a while and are being introduced to new potential connections, such as through the documentary series Old People’s Home For Teenagers.

A common theme raised by the aged care residents is a general sense of loneliness and depression – while some may have only recently retired, some also have experienced a personal tragedy before entering the facility. It’s tough being old – as the average life expectancy of Aussies approaches 80, you’ll find more and more people that have outlived their friends and loved ones by not only years but perhaps decades.

From the loss of a loved one due to illness or a general struggle with the distance that can exist with modern families, documentaries that explore the nature of aged care homes bring to light the idea that elderly Australians can often have a range of complex emotions, not only when they’ve entered the aged care system, but also in the time they live there.

Understanding the world that elderly Australians face as they transition into care is not simply a luxury – it is essential to ensuring that the best of us are treated with dignity and respect, in the twilight of their lives.

Addressing Complex Feelings

How does one begin to address the feelings that are associated with trauma and loss – particularly when they may not necessarily be as physically mobile as they used to be? For some, finding someone to talk to is often a good place to start – with programs such as the Head to Health Phone Service providing a vital first step to seeking guidance.

For those looking to support someone with mental health concerns, having a conversation can sometimes be challenging. People can be resistant to talking about their mental health, for many reasons. 

For many decades, there was a stigma to talking about one’s mental wellbeing – and while most mental asylums were closed in Australia in the 1990s, their legacy still leaves scars on those who experienced that system.

Concerned relatives may want to take it upon themselves to force a conversation about mental health – and that’s not always the best of ideas, as it can trigger a negative response.

While there has been an improvement in recent years in how elderly Australians talk about their mental health, uptake of mental health services by older age groups is low. It’s important to find ways to tackle the barriers surrounding mental health, while also providing support in ways that are meaningful and approachable by residents within aged care.

Change can be like bad weather - you can choose to be upset, or you can choose to find a way to tackle it. [Unsplash]

Tackling the Obstacles to Support

There are many obstacles to mental health support in the aged care sector, and many organisations, such as the Australian Psychological Society, are calling for change. 

Aged care, broadly, will continue to require increasing numbers of workers. With the number of Aussies in aged care set to grow from 186,000 in 2011 to 350,000 by 2040, finding enough aged care workers to meet demand will be challenging.

Providing mental health support in aged care facilities promises a significant uplift to the current availability of these services in the sector. It may reduce the demand on the broader aged care workforce, as patients are able to get specialised support.

In recent years, state and federal governments have collectively recognise that things must change to provide adequate mental health support across all age groups.

At a federal level, task forces such as the Aged Care Taskforce have looked to explore funding models more broadly. At the same time, strategies such as the National Mental Health Workforce Strategy have also been developed to help foster investment and growth in the sector.

At a state level, health departments around the country are looking at ways to provide improved mental health care that benefits elderly members of their communities.

From Perth to Sydney, organisations from the Public Health Network of Northern Territory to the Health Department of New South Wales, no stone is being left unturned in the name of improving mental healthcare.

Managing Change in a Complex World

The needs of elderly Australians are complex – a lifetime of emotional events can weigh down on people. But change can be like bad weather – you can choose to be upset, or you can choose to find a way to tackle it.

While it’s clear that the aged care system has shortages that must be addressed in the short term, it’s heartening to see figures from all levels coming together to try and find solutions.

Perhaps as we age, we’ll grow to live in a world where as aged care residents, our feelings and worries will be supported and valued, in a well-developed, well-supported mental health sector, trained to tackle the challenges that  Australians face.

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