Image: The mental health of older Australians has been addressed in the 2018/19 budget
We often tend to not always things about the mental health and daily struggle challenges of older Australians but for a vast many in the sixty up club its not all bowling and fishing into their later years. For the last six months, in my role as Chair of Suicide Prevention Australia and a talk back radio host on Sydney’s 2UE I can tell you that the challenges are as deep as they are wide. Women in their latter years is one example of a group struggling. As relationships and marriages end post fifty the number of women that face financial and employment insecurity leading into retirement is increasing.
They are more likely to have less in their superannuation than their former male partners and will struggle to make up the difference before hitting the retirement age which means many will need to continue working in some form of employment – if they are able to secure it. This leads to the second challenge of employment insecurity after years at home bringing up the kids and remaining absent from the employment market – the need to step back in becomes all that much harder. The cost of living, stagnant wage growth and housing affordability are leading many women to the brink. Gladys from Adelaide called the radio show in February this year with such a story. Facing divorce and an unequal division of assets, absent from the workforce for more than twenty years she laboured that her prospects were not good – she was also facing the challenge of being likely to be the only carer for her own mother now into her late eighties with mid stage dementia.
But its not just women in their later years – imagine the challenge of many blue-collar workers unable to keep with their trades because after forty years of laying bricks or putting down plumbing, roofing or concreting the joints cannot handle it anymore. Facing the loss of their trade, a job and income they fall into deep states of depression.
As we head past the age of eighty and move into what are meant to be our twilight years the challenge changes. Bob from Perth called me one Monday evening almost in tears. At eighty-one years old he had lost his wife of more than sixty years only five months prior. He had become insular, missed her terribly and had isolated himself away from friends and family. He said to me “I just want to be with my wife…but she is gone, and I don’t know what is left for me.” Bob’s story is the same the nation over – bereft and grief ridden through loss they will often struggle after a loved one passes. Even though their own latter years can be filled with love and happiness through their children and grandchildren.
Every where across this great country of ours are an army of fifty and sixty ups, eighty-ups all struggling with issues deep and wide. All of them need not only our love and understanding but our support as well.
That is why the announcement in the budget by the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, that there will be an investment in the mental health of older Australian’s is welcome news. The focus on suicide prevention is particularly welcome. The $82.5 million investment for residential care and $20 million for mental health nurses to support older Australians in the community at risk of isolation will go a long way in our journey to understand what more we can and must do when it comes to our elders – because one day soon we will all face challenges as we too age.
But; aside from the money and budgets there are some simple things we can all do every single day to break down the barriers of isolation and despair. Here are some simple tips from me:
Reach out to your elderly neighbours even if its just a hello, a knock on the door with a smiling face – don’t do it just once make it a regular thing. This is particularly important if you know someone who has just faced the loss of a loved one or has spent sporadic periods of time in hospital or care.
Start a conversation: It's not always easy to know who or how to help. A good start is simply to stop and talk to an elderly neighbour if you pass them on the street. If you think an older person may have trouble hearing or has memory problems, make sure to speak clearly (but don't shout!). Pause between sentences and questions to give them chance to digest the information. And allow a little extra time for them to respond - don't hurry them.
Offer practical help: Do you know an older person who lives alone, rarely leaves the house, has recently suffered a bereavement, is in poor health, disabled, has sight or hearing loss, or doesn't seem to have close family living nearby? Ask them if they need any help with tasks such as shopping, posting letters, picking up prescriptions and medicines or dog-walking. Offer to accompany them or give them a lift to, activities or doctors' and hospital appointments, the library, hairdressers or faith services.
Share a meal: Older, isolated people often need a hand cooking for themselves, so why not take round an extra plate of hot home-cooked food, or a frozen portion they can heat up or microwave? As well as being practical, it's a nice way to share your time with a neighbour. Try to provide the meal in a container that you don't need back - it's hard work for both of you to keep track of serving bowls.
We don’t all have to be doing big things to make a difference in the lives of older Australians – in fact small things done on a regular basis can have a significant impact.
About the author: Matthew Tukaki is the Chair of Suicide Prevention Australia and former talkback radio host on Australia’s oldest commercial radio station, 2UE. He is also the former Head of Drake International, the worlds oldest and one of the largest employment companies.
The Council of the Aging Australia: https://www.cota.org.au/
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Support services: https://agedcare.health.gov.au/support-services
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