Growing Old: Britain's Mental Health Crisis? - Tonight

Life can be full of ups and downs. When we’re older, it’s possible that we may experience things that affect our mental wellbeing. In fact, it’s estimated that half of over 55s have experienced a mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety.

Triggers can include loneliness, financial worries, or poor physical health. Sadly, there is evidence that while older people are as susceptible to mental health problems as younger ones, they tend to be getting less support - and are not referred to therapy as often as they should be. Tragically, official figures state that 496 people over the age of 75 took their own lives last year.

In tonight’s programme, Fiona Foster explores how older people may be affected, and what we can do to help cope with, alleviate, or treat mental illness.

Losing a loved one

One thing that’s hard to deal with at any age is grief. But giving someone a new reason to get up in the morning might help, as we found out when we visited a retirement community in Newcastle.

Every morning at the crack of dawn, 89 year-old Owen gets up, puts on his galoshes and mac, and heads out to greet his pride and joy: two dozen chickens. He’s named every one - from Betty, Doreen and Pam, to Sheila and Margaret. They’re all close to his heart, but his very favourite is Bell - the feathered beauty he’s named after his late wife.

Owen and his wife Bell were together for 64 years. She was the love of his life. “Every time you looked at her, she had a smile,” he says.

When Bell passed away just after Valentine’s Day this year, Owen was heartbroken. But the charity Henpower, in Gateshead, provides older people with chickens to look after. And he’s also attended creative sessions, like ceramics and cookery. It’s all worked to raise his spirits and help him to cope better with the loss.

Dealing with Dementia

Keith Oliver, was 54 when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia, eight years ago.

At the time, he was the head teacher of a large primary school in Canterbury. But following his diagnosis, he now helps other people with the brain condition, and has written a book about his experience.

He spoke to Tonight about the reality of living with the disease, and how having therapy has helped him to combat the depression that came with his diagnosis.

Tonight’s programme also explores how hard it is, mentally, to be a carer. We meet Sandra from Rotherham, who found life tough when her beloved husband Charlie’s dementia worsened.

“It was really upsetting. Mentally I became a wreck” she told Tonight.

“He’d wander round, he’d be pulling drawers out, emptying wardrobes, so you had no sleep. And then he’d take off and he’d disappear on us.”

But Sandra found solace in a Dementia Memory Cafe, funded by the local council. At each two hour meeting, carers and those with dementia play games, do crafts, and sing and dance. It’s a welcome respite from being a full time carer, and gives everyone there a new support network for when things are tough.

Learning from the Dutch

In the UK, up to 40% of people living in a care home experience some level of depression and anxiety. But one care home we visited in the Netherlands might have a solution to this…

At Humanitas Deventer, a home about an hour’s drive east of Amsterdam, the elderly residents have very youthful neighbours. Six students live there, for free, in exchange for spending 30 hours a week with their elderly chums. They don’t provide medical care - just a helping hand, a listening ear, and a friendly face. And the care home say it really works…

“If you have young people in your home they can inject life. Our students bring the outside world inside, and that means it takes people’s attention off their bad health. It gives them something else to focus on.”

Peter Daniels - Chief Happiness Officer, Humanitas Deventer

Although there are no plans currently for something similar in the UK, maybe it’s one thought for the future…