Good mental health for the elderly

28th June 2018

The public conversation around mental health is so necessary and it is great that it seems to finally be properly on the national agenda.  Mental health in older people does however continue to be a “Cinderella service” according to Dr Alex Bailey, geriatric psychiatrist.

As a result he says that families and carers are absolutely critical in helping to promote, encourage and look out for good mental health in their parents or relatives.  There are things to look out for and things you can do – read more in our guide here.

mental health

How to deal with someone who’s showing signs

Get all medical possibilities checked and ruled out.  Physical and mental health can be linked so if there is pain, infection or certain conditions present it can affect the ability to think straight.  The following conditions can affect brain function and require medical attention:

  • Hypertension – high blood pressure
  • Diabetes and fluctuating blood sugar levels
  • High levels of LDL cholesterol
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Heart disease
  • Bladder infections
  • Hearing issues or other ear problems
Are my elderly parents depressed?
Confusion, lack of interest, and forgetfulness can also be symptoms of depression. Long term depression is a mental health issue that can only become worse if not addressed.

It’s important to get your parent, relative or friend to talk about their fears and anxiety. If it is difficult to get them to open up when they are feeling down, it may be easier for them to talk to a professional who is not emotionally involved.

Medications could be the cause

Medications can cause confusion, particularly if several different medicines are being taken. Read the side-effects in the packet or online and ask the doctor if you have concerns that they are causing your loved one to become confused and forgetful.

Eating and drinking well

Malnutrition and dehydration which are very common among elderly people also lead to mental confusion.  When you’re with them it’s easier to make sure that they eat and drink properly, but if they are looking after themselves it can be much more difficult.

mental health food

Dehydration can happen because they simply don’t feel thirsty – but not feeling thirsty doesn’t mean they are not dehydrated. Go to Drinking Enough and Often for more information on the dangers of dehydration, its effects, and why drinking plenty of fluids is essential.

If you’ve ever tried to make a decision when you’re really hungry, you can understand the confusion that can build up when someone is not eating regular meals.  Malnutrition is a major problem among the elderly and  often it’s simply because they do not have much of a sense of taste and don’t feel hungry.

Not only do they under-eat, but their food may be lacking in essential nutrients. Some foods are said to be good for healthy brain function and they include many fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, herbs such as rosemary and sage, the spice turmeric, oily fish, eggs, and extra virgin oil.  Home made soups are a great way to help an elderly person have a nutritious meal.

Exercising the brain

archersIt is a fact that brain cells die off gradually from the age of 60, but there are some techniques that can help to sharpen the brain and improve memory. Researchers at Stanford University in the USA have found that mental exercises can improve memory loss by 30 to 50 per cent.

It is of course much easier to start exercising the brain well before memory loss sets in, but at the very least little changes of habit can provide some exercise for the brain. For example:

  • Walking in a different direction to normal.
  • Not sitting in the same place at the dinner table every day.
  • If you are right-handed use your left hand for daily activities and vice versa.

For an elderly person it can be difficult to find things that interest or stimulate them but any of the following are helpful:

  • Watching quiz programmes on television
  • Doing crosswords, codewords or Sudoko in the paper
  • Playing chess, bridge, card games, Scrabble or any board games
  • Doing jigsaws
  • Listening to the radio – particularly when there is discussion, not just music
  • Reading newspapers, magazines or books and listening to audio books
  • Memorising lists or poems. At school children are taught to learn and recite extracts of books or poems. Why not do the same now?
  • Play a version of Kim’s game which many of us learnt as children – if someone puts a selection of objects on a tray, look at them for a minute and then have them taken away. See how many of the objects you can remember
  • Taking up a new hobby or doing a course online or at a local centre
  • Joining social groups and listening to talks

Age UK runs groups to help elderly people meet others like them:

Contact the Elderly runs monthly Sunday tea parties for the elderly:  Freephone 0800 716543.

For those who want to learn new things the University of the 3rd Age provides talks and outings:

Mindfulness and meditation

Becoming more aware of your actions and surroundings is a helpful way to be in the present moment and not worry about the past or future.  Mindfulness has become a very popular way of helping people to cope with the stresses of life and depression and incorporates meditation which promotes relaxation.  It can also help to improve memory. Read Dealing with Depression.

good mental health exercise
Gentle exercise

The brain also benefits from physical exercise. T’ai chi is particularly recommended for elderly people as it involves learning forms (like dancing) which require focus and concentration. Gentle exercise classes especially for the elderly aim to help concentration and focus, and can be sociable and fun.

Sing your heart out

Singing has enormous benefits for improving wellbeing and the mind. It has proved very effective at involving dementia patients when they often do not communicate. It seems that even when people are confused and their brains aren’t functioning well they can remember the songs they used to like.

If you care for someone with dementia the Alzheimer’s Society has set up Singing for the Brain® sessions. To find a group near the person you care for go to:

More information about mental health can be found at :


The Mental Health Foundation website,



Frances Ive is a journalist and member of the Guild of Health Writers.

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