Older people and mental health


For many people, life really does begin at 60. You’ve got more time for the things you’ve always wanted to do – visit new places, take up hobbies, or see more of friends and family. 

However, some things can seem a bit harder. We start losing people close to us. Friends and family are often far away. Our bodies can slow down a bit, and we might have more health issues to worry about. These changes can increase the risk of anxiety, depression and suicide in older people.

Anxiety and depression are not a weakness of character – they are a health issue just like any other. The good news is that effective treatments are available, and with the right support, you can recover.


Your mental health is important

Your mental health is a major part of your overall wellbeing. If you have good self-esteem and feel confident and able to face life and its challenges, you probably have good mental health.

Being mentally healthy is important, not just so you can get through the day but so you can maintain healthy relationships with others, and appreciate life to the full. So if you feel like your mental health is not as good as it could be, look for support before you reach a crisis point.


Common mental health issues

Many older people may have mental health issues at one point or another. This may be due to:

  • illness
  • grief and loss
  • financial stress
  • changing living arrangements or
  • increasing social isolation. 


Factors that can increase an older person’s risk of developing anxiety or depression include:

  • an increase in physical health problems/conditions e.g. heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease
  • chronic pain
  • side-effects from medications
  • losses: relationships, independence, work and income, self-worth, mobility and flexibility
  • social isolation
  • significant change in living arrangements e.g. moving from living independently to a care setting
  • admission to hospital
  • particular anniversaries and the memories they evoke.


Everyone is different and it’s often a combination of factors that can contribute to a person developing anxiety or depression.


Signs and symptoms of anxiety in older people

The symptoms of anxiety in older people are sometimes not all that obvious as they often develop gradually and, given that we all experience some anxiety at some points in time, it can be hard to know how much is too much. Often older people with anxiety will experience a range of symptoms from the categories below:

  • Behavioural
    • Avoiding objects or situations which cause anxiety
    • Urges to perform certain rituals in a bid to relieve anxiety
    • Not being assertive (i.e. avoiding eye contact)
    • Difficulty making decisions
    • Being startled easily 
  • Feelings
    • Overwhelmed
    • Fear (particularly when facing certain objects, situations or events)
    • Worried about physical symptoms (such as fearing there is an undiagnosed medical problem)
    • Dread (such as fearing that something bad is going to happen)
    • Constantly tense or nervous
    • Uncontrollable or overwhelming panic 
  • Thoughts
    • I’m going crazy.”
    • I can’t control myself.”
    • I’m about to die.”
    • People are judging me.”
    • Having upsetting dreams or flashbacks of a traumatic event
    • Finding it hard to stop worrying, unwanted or intrusive thoughts 
  • Physical symptoms
    • Increased heart rate/ racing heart
    • Vomiting, nausea or pain in the stomach
    • Muscle tension and pain
    • Feeling detached from your physical self or surroundings
    • Having trouble sleeping
    • Sweating, shaking
    • Dizzy, lightheaded or faint
    • Numbness or tingling
    • Hot or cold flushes


Signs and symptoms of depression in older people

An older person may be depressed if, for more than two weeks, he or she has felt sad, down or miserable most of the time or has lost interest or pleasure in most of his or her usual activities, and similar to anxiety, has experienced several of the signs and symptoms across at least three of the categories below.

It’s important to note that everyone experiences some of these symptoms from time to time and it may not necessarily mean that the person is depressed. Equally, not every person who is experiencing depression will have all of these symptoms.

Older people with depression tend to present with more symptoms from the physical category compared to the other categories. So an older person is more likely to present to their GP with various physical complaints and difficulty sleeping rather than complaints of sadness or low mood.

Different language may also be used when older people refer to their depression. Instead of describing ‘sadness’, for example, they may talk about ‘their nerves’.

  • Behaviours
    • General slowing down or restlessness
    • Neglect of responsibilities and self-care
    • Withdrawing from family and friends
    • Decline in day-to-day ability to function, being confused, worried and agitated
    • Inability to find pleasure in any activity
    • Difficulty getting motivated in the morning
    • Behaving out of character
    • Denial of depressive feelings as a defence mechanism 
  • Thoughts
    • Indecisiveness
    • Loss of self-esteem
    • Persistent suicidal thoughts
    • Negative comments like ‘I’m a failure, ‘It’s my fault’ or ‘Life is not worth living’
    • Excessive concerns about financial situation
    • Perceived change of status within the family 
  • Feelings
    • Moodiness or irritability, which may present as angry or aggressive
    • Sadness, hopelessness or emptiness
    • Overwhelmed
    • Feeling worthless or guilty 
  • Physical symptoms
    • Sleeping more or less than usual
    • Feeling tired all the time
    • Slowed movement
    • Memory problems
    • Unexplained headaches, backache, pain or similar complaints
    • Digestive upsets, nausea, changes in bowel habits
    • Agitation, hand wringing, pacing
    • Loss or change of appetite
    • Significant weight loss (or gain)



Improving your wellbeing

There are plenty of things you can do to improve your mental health and wellbeing. These include:

  • eating well
  • getting enough sleep
  • exercising regularly
  • spending time with friends and family
  • sharing feelings with others
  • doing enjoyable and relaxing activities
  • volunteering and helping others.



Getting older brings its share of challenges, and you may find it difficult to stay mentally healthy and strong at times. If feelings like sadness or worry are preventing you from getting the most out of life, help and support is available for seniors with mental health issues.

(article information sourced Beyond Blue, Blackdog Institute and Mind Health Connect)


At Lifepath Psychology, our psychologists have experience working with older clients in conjunction with their referring GP to tackle issues such as coping with:

  • retirement
  • memory changes
  • physical changes
  • illness
  • grief and loss
  • financial stress
  • change in living arrangements
  • increased social isolation


We can assist with, depending on client requirements:

  • Stress release
  • Increasing confidence, energy and motivation
  • Improving concentration and memory
  • Reducing the incident and/or escalation of mental health issues


Any clients referred under a Mental Health Care Plan, and on a Pension or Department of Veteran Affair Card, are Bulk Billed at Lifepath Psychology.



Do you think you may be suffering from depression or anxiety?

If you feel you may have anxiety or depression, seek the advice of an experienced mental health professional. Visit your GP and discuss your concerns, book a longer appointment so there is time to explain your issues and how you are feeling.

Your GP may write a referral to a psychologist, which may entitle you to access Medicare rebates under the Federal Governments Better Access to Mental Health Care Rebate Scheme.

Remember your Doctor and psychologist are there to help, and will not judge.

If you would like to see a psychologist at Lifepath Psychology just ask your GP to write a referral letter, and attach your Mental Healthcare Plan. You will need to bring this referral letter and Mental healthcare Plan with you to your first appointment to receive the Medicare rebate.

To book an appointment at Lifepath Psychology, or request further information about our services, please feel free to email your query to admin@lifepathpsychology.com.au or call 6496 0039 and one of our friendly staff will more than happy to assist.


Understanding and Managing Stress

What is stress?

Stress is often described as a feeling of being overloaded, wound-up tight, tense and worried. We all experience stress at times. It can sometimes help to motivate us to get a task finished, or perform well. But stress can also be harmful if we become over-stressed and it interferes with our ability to get on with our normal life for too long.



What are the signs of stress?

When we face a stressful event, our bodies respond by activating the nervous system and releasing hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones cause physical changes in the body which help us to react quickly and effectively to get through the stressful situation. This is sometimes called the ‘fight or flight’ response. The hormones increase our heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, metabolism and muscle tension. Our pupils dilate and our perspiration rate increases. While these physical changes help us try to meet the challenges of the stressful situation, they can cause other physical or psychological symptoms if the stress is ongoing and the physical changes don’t settle down. These symptoms can include:

  • Headaches, other aches and pains
  • Sleep disturbance, insomnia
  • Upset stomach, indigestion, diarrhoea
  • Anxiety
  • Anger, irritability
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling overwhelmed and out of control
  • Feeling moody, tearful
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low self-esteem, lack of confidence
  • High blood pressure
  • Weakened immune system
  • Heart disease


When to seek professional help

If high levels of stress continue for a long period of time, or are interfering with you enjoying a healthy life, it is advisable to seek professional help. A mental health professional, like a psychologist, can help you identify behaviours and situations that are contributing to high stress, and help you to make changes to the things that are within your control. Seeking help can be one way to manage your stress effectively.


Learning to handle stress in healthy ways is very important. Fortunately, it is easy to learn simple techniques that help. These include recognising and changing the behaviours that contribute to stress, as well as techniques for reducing stress once it has occurred. The following tips from the APS can help you look after your mind and body, and reduce stress and its impact on your health.


Identify warning signs

It is very helpful to be able to identify early warning signs in your body that tell you when you are getting stressed. These vary from person to person, but might include things like tensing your jaw, grinding your teeth, getting headaches, or feeling irritable and short tempered.


Identify triggers

There are often known triggers which raise our stress levels and make it more difficult for us to manage. If you know what the likely triggers are, you can aim to anticipate them and practise

calming yourself down beforehand, or even find ways of removing the trigger. Triggers might include late nights, deadlines, seeing particular people, hunger or over-tired children.


Establish routines

Having predictable rhythms and routines in your day, or over a week, can be very calming and reassuring, and can help you to manage your stress. Routines can include:

Regular times for exercise and relaxation

Regular meal times, waking and bedtimes

Planning ahead to do particular jobs on set days of

the week.


Spend time with people who care

Spending time with people you care about, and who care about you, is an important part of managing ongoing stress in your life.

  • Spend time with friends and family, especially those you find uplifting rather than people who place demands on you.
  • Share your thoughts and feelings with others when opportunities arise. Don’t ‘bottle up’ your feelings.


Look after your health

  • Make sure you are eating healthy food and getting regular exercise.
  • Take time to do activities you find calming or uplifting, such as listening to music, walking or dancing.
  • Avoid using alcohol, tobacco or other drugs to cope.


Notice your self-talk

When we are stressed we sometimes say tings in our head, over and over, that just add to our stress. This unhelpful self-talk might include things like: ‘I can’t cope’, or ‘I’m too busy’, or ‘I’m so tired’, or ‘It’s not fair’. While we might think that these are fairly truthful descriptions of what’s going on, they are not always helpful to repeat, and can even make you feel worse.

  • Notice when you are using unhelpful self-talk, and instead try saying soothing, calming things to yourself to reduce your levels of stress. Try more helpful self-talk like ‘I’m coping well given what’s on my plate’, or ‘Calm down’, or ‘Breathe easy’.
  • Keeping things in perspective is also important. When we are stressed, it’s easy to see things as worse than they really are. Try self-talk such as ‘This is not the end of the world’ or ‘In the overall scheme of things, this doesn’t matter so much’.


Practise relaxation

Make time to practise relaxation. This will help your body and nervous system to settle and readjust. Consider trying some of the following things:

  • Learn a formal technique such as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation or yoga.
  • Make time to absorb yourself in a relaxing activity such as gardening or listening to music.
  • Plan things to do each day that you look forward to and which give you a sense of pleasure, like reading a book

(Article by Australian Psychological Society 2012)