The public conversation around mental health was important before Coronavirus. With millions of older people spending months in isolation and lockdown, looking out for and recognising signs of mental wellbeing and depression is never more important.
Of course this becomes more difficult if you are living away from your parents. Whether or not you are there in person, there are things to look out for and things you can do – read more in our guide here.
How to deal with someone who’s showing signs of declining mental health
Try if you can to get medical possibilities checked and ruled out first. 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
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.
For more great advice on spotting, treating and preventing depression in older people, listen to this conversation with psychiatrist Dr Alex Bailey.
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.
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.
During this time of isolation, ensuring your elderly parents have enough food in the house is a cause of concern. You can find out more information regarding shopping and meal delivery services in our Coronavirus guide.
Keeping the brain exercised
It 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: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/get-involved/social-groups/friendship-centres/
Contact the Elderly – now renamed Re-Engage usually runs monthly Sunday tea parties for the elderly – whilst these are currently on hold, they have set up a call service to engage with their beneficiaries: Re-Engage or Freephone 0800 716543.
For those who want to learn new things the University of the 3rd Age provides talks and outings: https://www.u3a.org.uk/
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.
There are apps you can download for your parents, as well as other online resources.
Good exercise for mental health
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.
For those most vulnerable and in isolation for 12 weeks clearly outdoor exercise is going to be limited. Just a walk around the garden every day is a helpful and relaxing thing to do.
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: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/info/20172/your_support_services/1092/singing_for_the_brain
More information about mental health can be found at :
The Mental Health Foundation website, https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/
We recorded a podcast with Consultant Geriatrician Dr Alex Bailey. He speaks about Depression among the elderly in such a compassionate way – worth a listen here.