Relationships Make You Feel Alive

May 23, 2016

As part of the Mental Health Awareness Week we attended a social group to spark the conversation about relationships and mental health. The group were asked what the term ‘relationship’ meant to them and what key words and phrases popped into their mind. There was one phrase that all fourteen members undoubtedly agreed on which was that ‘relationships make you feel alive’; this seemed like a poignant statement that resonated within the group and that kept me thinking long after the session had ended.

So who exactly was I addressing when I asked my initial question and why was it so poignant? It may surprise some, but in fact the audience was a group of older adults. Listening to this statement made with such conviction from a number of individuals senior to myself, really made me consider how important relationships are to keeping us happy, healthy and quite candidly, living. The group I was attending was generally full of laughter, and chatter over copious amounts of tea and homemade cake, so why then, are we worried about the mental health of older adults?

We firstly, need to bear in mind we are living much, much longer than previous generations – we really are! For example, one in five of us who are alive now, in 2016, will receive a letter from the reigning monarch on their 100th birthday, and that every second there are two people celebrating their 60th birthday somewhere in the world. So, there is no doubt we should be thinking about mental health in the older adult population.

Furthermore, older adults appear to be a group that are experiencing multiple changes socially, physically and psychologically.

Socially: 3.5 million people over the age of 65 year in the UK live alone, and 61% of widows in England and Wales are aged 75 or above.

Physically: 40% of people over the age of 65 year olds have a limiting longstanding illness and approximately 50% of individuals classed as disabled are over the state pension age.

Psychologically: 15% of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental disorder.

So it would seem with age and change comes loss, subsequent sadness, loneliness and increased anxiety, right? Not necessarily, we shouldn’t make these assumptions! In fact, older adults are one of the happiest age groups, with 71% reporting that in the last two weeks they never felt depressed, and with a massive 82% reporting they felt content either most days of everyday in the last two weeks. This is this highest in comparison to any other age group across the lifespan.

The problem is we normalize feelings of sadness, low mood, stress, changes in sleep pattern, increased anxiety to the fact that an individual is quite simply growing older and experiencing change. This is commonly labelled as the ‘understandability phenomena’. However, growing old should not automatically imply that mental health and well being should be compromised.

This ‘understandability phenomena’ may be resulting in individuals who need support missing out; rather than normalizing symptoms of mental health problems in the older adult population we need to address them. There are a number of individuals who are lonely, with no meaningful supportive relationships, who are finding it difficult to cope who simply say ‘I’m getting old’.

For example, in the group of older adults I spoke to, a number of them mentioned that actually, they had been feeling a little down and isolated and nearly every single member mentioned someone they knew who may need our support. If we think back to the statement noted at the beginning of the article, agreed by so many, how are these individuals surviving without any kind of social support and when many of us may be simply normalizing changes in mental health in the older adult population?

Our service, Greenwich Time to Talk, offers talking therapy options based on evidence based treatments to help individuals experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. This can sometimes be presented as feelings of: loss, isolation, loneliness, stress, worry and low mood. We adapt therapy and assessment options based on individual’s needs. Take a look at our website and use the self-referral form to refer yourself for an assessment or call us on 020 8298 9677 (Mon – Thurs 8am – 8pm, Friday 8am- 5pm) to make a self-referral.

Alana Gallacher
Assistant Psychologist
Greenwich Time to Talk
Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust

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