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As we get older, for some, loneliness looms and a sense of purpose can go missing. It’s estimated that between 10 to 15 per cent of older people go through depression. What are the signs and how can you best start a conversation with the person you're worried about?

Amy Chien-Yu Wang
Published on
Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 10:35
6 min 13 sec

Malinee Backus is a volunteer at Enliven in South East Melbourne. She connects refugees and migrants to suitable health and settlement services. Malinee notices that older people are more prone to depression with symptoms sometimes being mistakenly regarded as a part of ageing.

“First thing is, that they themselves are not aware that they’re going through some kind of sickness. The few people they have connection with, they aren’t able to identify, ok, this person is going through some kind of anxiety or depression. That's why they’re behaving this way or that's why they’re unable to sleep.”

In Australia, as many as 45 per cent of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. In any given year, one million adults will suffer from depression and two million from anxiety.

Former AMA national president Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, is a board member of beyondblue, and a general practitioner. He says whilst people from some cultures may be more reserved in sharing their problems, there’re signs to tell if a person is going through depression.

“Often just the way in which they appear - they haven’t taken time to look after themselves with how they dress; demeanour, you know the way they groom themselves; the house may be untidy; they may not speak very happily - bit of a monotone, no life in the speech.  It means that they’re not functioning well, not really any interest, nothing to look forward to, nothing they’re enjoying at the moment.”

Working as a GP in Altona North, one of Australia’s most multicultural municipalities, Dr Haikerwal often sees people who bring in an older person for check-up after noticing warning signs.

“In my practice on a daily basis, I’ll have concerned neighbours bringing in their older retired neighbours because they’re worried about them in one shape or form. It may be because of medical issue. It may be because they’re losing weight. It maybe because they’re tearful. It maybe because they’re just disengaged, and approaching that is really important.” 

Malinee acknowledges that talking to an older person about their mental state isn’t easy.  

“I’ll just be there for them, give them calls, go out with them, just to make them feel comfortable. If I feel they need to see someone professionally, I connect them with them, and encourage them to say this is nothing wrong, that everybody has problems like this, this is just common. So just giving them hope.”

"If you’re concerned about the mental wellbeing of an older person, break the ice by starting a simple conversation." - Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, beyondblue

“People will not say that they’re low or depressed. They’ll always put a brave face on. The most common greeting is ‘how are you going?’. ‘How are you?’. The most common response is ‘I’m alright’, and it’s actually important to go beyond that. ‘How is other aspects of your life?’. ‘How are you feeling?’. ‘Are you sleeping alright?’. ‘Are you eating alright?’. ‘Is anything worrying you?’. ‘Have you got stress?’. Words like that in a non-political setting, which can be a good alert and a good trigger to keep the conversation and take it to the next level.”

Sometimes a mental disorder can also imitate an illness or physical symptoms such as pain or fatigue. 

“I think if something’s wrong, it’s wrong. But sometimes it can be a depressive illness, medical anxiety illness, which can mimic some of the symptoms of those medical conditions. So, you always need to work those side by side, and not ignore the medical somatic and not ignore the depressive mental health illness sides of it as well, so that you can be sure that you’re eliminating somatics, and you’re not fobbing people off and saying it’s all in your mind, which you must never do, it's a very unhelpful way to be. But you must always work through the mental health side of things when you’re dealing with the bodily somatic issues because one can aggravate the other.”

And common triggers such as illness, grief and loss, financial stress, social isolation, or relocation of a loved one, can often lead to depression.

“People who are retired or retiring, and feel that they have a lack of purpose. Older people often feel a burden on their family. They feel a burden on their children and grandchildren, and they need to be reassured that that's not the case. If they’re unwell, the illnesses can be dealt with. It may mean dealing with the medical side but also may mean dealing with the stress side as well, and that's not a bad thing - it can be dealt with.”

There are steps you can take if you’re worried about someone’s wellbeing, and unsure of what to do. 

“There’s a lot that can be done including conversation, including joining people up to other people, who can put a bit of spark back into their life, provide them activities, and obviously, the connection with a health professional, general practitioner, psychologists, other people around that are working in the community, who can support people.”   

Malinee also sees forming social networks as being highly beneficial for improving one’s overall happiness.

“Especially, people who are connected with something like say, religious people, there are seniors group, ethnic senior’s groups are there. There are some kind of interactions with the other people - that way they get to have a better quality of life and they have a longer life as well.”

If you or someone you know may be experiencing depression, you can find out more by visiting these websites: SANE Australia, Black Dog Institute, Lifeline or beyondblue. You can get support over the phone by calling Lifeline at 13 11 14, Mensline Australia servicing men of any age on 1300 789 978, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. You can also access free interpreter service to connect with these support services by ringing the TIS helpline on 131 450.