Mental Well-being in Later Life

Much of the literature on Frailty has focused on physical health, however mental health including cognition, sleep, social interactions and positive aspects like well-being are just as important.

In 2014 in the UK general population about 300 in every 1,000 people experienced mental health problems. Of those 300 people, 230 visited a GP and 102 were diagnosed as having a mental health problem. For people with frailty who are at higher risk of mental ill-health, these figures will to be higher. National Surveys of NHS patients indicate that approximately 91 per cent of people with a mental health problem are treated within the primary care system, meaning that very few are referred to specialist mental health services. Figures also suggest that at least 25% of individuals with symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety do not report them to their GP. People living with frailty will behave similarly. There is also an assumption by some that mental health problems are a ‘normal’ aspect of ageing, but most older people don’t develop mental health problems, and they can be helped if they do.

Healthcare professionals in the community are ideally positioned to make a difference. Age UK has identified key steps that every healthcare professional can take:  

  • Remember that mental health is just as important as physical.
  • Try to get into the habit of asking about the emotional well-being of the people you see. 
  • Look out for signs that your patients are struggling with their mental health. 
  • Start the conversation. It can seem awkward bringing up mental health but older people do say that they want to be asked and find talking useful.    
  • Think about language. Older people can be put off by terms such as mental health and depression. Try to use more informal language. 
  • Remember mental health problems are not inevitable. With the right support older people can recover. 

We have looked at two of the biggest causes of mental illness in frail older people already. See the earlier post on Loneliness which is at http://frailtymatters.uws.ac.uk/2019/12/04/the-value-of-social-support/ and our post about Dementia which is at http://frailtymatters.uws.ac.uk/2020/02/27/dementia-some-guidance/

One of the main issues we have not examined relating to mental health is DEPRESSION. It has been estimated that 1 in 4 older people have symptoms of depression that require treatment, but fewer than 1 in 6 older people will seek help. Care home residents are also at an increased risk of depression. Depression in later life can be a major cause of ill-health and can have a severe effect on physical and mental well-being. Older people are particularly vulnerable to factors that lead to depression such as bereavement, physical disability, illness and loneliness. Depression in older people can be treated effectively through talking therapies and antidepressants. See the NICE Clinical Knowledge Summary on Depression mentioned below. Effective interventions to prevent depression in older people include reducing loneliness and isolation through encouraging learning, physical activity and any form social interaction including volunteering. Many of these are difficult at this time but a useful guide to ‘Keeping Well at Home’ which was devised for all older people whose interactions are restricted currently because of COVID-19 has been produced by the Healthy Ageing Research Group at Manchester University. You can download the booklet at http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=49104

There is limited guidance from the Royal Colleges for those in primary care on what to do to maintain older people’s mental well-being but there is NICE guidance that you can refer to. NICE Guideline 32 is all about mental well being and independence in older people and there is also a NICE Quality Standard 137 which is on the same topic. You can look at the NICE flowchart and download both documents at

NICE (2020) Mental wellbeing and independence in older people overview: Interactive Flow Chart

You might also find the following NICE Clinical Knowledge summary on Depression useful. https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/depression/

England (2014), writing for the Royal College of GP’s has stated that community practitioners need to take responsibility for coordinating and signposting to services beyond health care, in particular social care, housing and benefits to effectively tackle mental well-being in older people. The more collaborative form of working integrated care heralds will move community staff from gatekeepers to that of navigators. Community healthcare workers need to take responsibility for co-ordination and signposting to services beyond health care and builds bridges with many community services, patients’ families and their communities, if improving the mental welfare of our older people is the goal.

If you want to know more about this topic an intersting report to read is by Lee, M. (2006) Promoting mental health and well-being in later life: A first report from the UK Inquiry into Mental Health and Well-Being in Later Life. London, Age Concern & Mental Health Foundation. 

The report highlights discrimination; participation in meaningful activity; relationships; physical health and poverty; as important parts of promoting mental health and well-being that also need to be considered

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