Social isolation, loss of independence and ageism impact the well-being of older adults, say a social work professor and a mental health coordinator.
Since the pandemic outbreak, the negative impacts of social isolation for seniors have gotten more attention, but factors such as ageism in society are also harmful for seniors’ mental health.
Ageist attitudes may lead to mental health issues and also impede their proper treatment, suggests Gail Wideman, an associate professor of social work at Memorial University, with an interest in gerontology, the study of aging.
“Because of ageism we may think – and this is common in the health system – that depression goes along with old age, that it’s normal to be depressed in later life and so that treatment doesn’t happen because it’s gone undiagnosed,” Wideman said.
Almost a quarter of the province’s population is 65 years and older – the age group generally defined as seniors – according to numbers for 2020 by the Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency.
Wideman emphasizes that most of these older adults experience high rates of well-being due to resilience and stability they’ve learned over the course of their lives.
Those who do experience mental health issues, Wideman says, need to be supported better by the health care system, which focuses on acute care and not chronic issues typical of old age.
Wideman prefers the term older adults over seniors because it acknowledges the heterogeneous needs of those addressed. She further explained that gerontology differentiates between those aged 65 to 74 and those 75 years or older.
“We want to be caring and careful with our older adult family members. We don’t want them to live at risk, but sometimes, you know, taking away that right is more harmful than what we perceive the risk to be.” – Dr. Gail Wideman, associate professor of social work, Memorial University
John Dinn of the Canadian Mental Health Association agrees that ageist attitudes are harmful.
“Our society often makes flat jokes about someone getting old or forgetful or can’t do things anymore, so again I think society can perpetuate that as not taking an older person seriously and probably not take some of the things that they’re going through as seriously,” said Dinn, a workplace mental health coordinator.
The loss of loved ones, Dinn says, illness or impairment, and loss of independence can all cause mental health issues in older adults living in long-term care.
Only a small number of older adults – five per cent of those 65 years and older – live in nursing homes, Wideman notes.
Yet, she agrees that loss of independence can negatively impact someone’s mental health and emphasizes that older adults have rights and values.
“We want to be caring and careful with our older adult family members,” Wideman said. “We don’t want them to live at risk, but sometimes, you know, taking away that right is more harmful than what we perceive the risk to be.”
While losing the right to drive, says Wideman, is a public safety issue, the uniform organization of daily life in nursing homes, where all residents get up and eat at the same time, for example, also takes away independence.
“Those are not uncomplicated questions because how do we manage an organization, you know, in a cost-effective way that enables people to choose,” said Wideman. “But if we don’t even have the discussion, it’s problematic from a human point of view in that we’re taking away their autonomy, we’re taking away their right to live as they wish and I think that clearly will affect mental health in later life.”
“You should never be afraid to ask an older person how they’re feeling, if they’re having thoughts of suicide, to help the person like you would help anyone else.” – John Dinn, workplace mental health care coordinator, Canadian Mental Health Association
Dinn emphasizes that social isolation, which has become a focus since COVID-19, can cause mental health problems.
“It’s affecting all of us, right, and it probably is affecting seniors more so because their ability to get around is probably dependent on other people,” said Dinn.
It’s important, says Dinn, to address mental illness in older adults to support them and break the taboo.
“You should never be afraid to ask an older person how they’re feeling, if they’re having thoughts of suicide, to help the person like you would help anyone else,” he said.
Wideman emphasizes the role family plays in making sure older adults stay connected with their communities – for example, by helping them with new technology such as video chats.
She illustrates to what extent social isolation might impact mental health and, in turn, causes physical problems, such as heart disease.
“One of the more recent research studies I read said that the impact of social isolation on health in later life is as great as if someone was smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”