Mental health describes your emotional wellbeing – how you think and feel, and how you deal with everyday stresses.
Getting older doesn’t mean your friend or relative’s mental health will always get worse, but changes in their life might affect how they feel. They may not develop a mental health problem, but if they do, it can often go unnoticed.
What to look out for
Mental health problems can affect people in different ways. Each problem has different symptoms, but they can sometimes overlap. As a general guide, keep an eye out for:
- major life changes – have they had recent experiences that could trigger a mental health problem? For example, a diagnosis of a serious illness or a bereavement
- physical health problems – are they getting more aches and pains, or perhaps they’ve been tired or sick more than usual?
- changes in their environment – how does their home seem? For example, messy surroundings or a regularly empty fridge could be a sign they’re struggling
- changes in behaviour or mood – have they been acting differently lately? For instance, avoiding socialising when they normally enjoy it, or getting snappy more than usual.
Two common mental health problems for older people are depression and anxiety.
Signs of depression
Look out for signs that they aren’t taking care of themselves, such as:
- poor personal hygiene
- not taking care of their appearance
- empty fridges and cupboards
- seeming to feel down or hopeless
- seeming more tired or restless than usual
- not enjoying things like they used to
- isolating themselves or avoiding visitors.
See our Depression page for more information.
Signs of anxiety
Look out for signs that they’re feeling uneasy or nervous, such as:
- seeming restless or jumpy
- finding it hard to concentrate
- seeming dizzy or sick
- trembling or sweating
- seeming tense or uptight
- getting irritable more than usual
- feeling depressed.
See our Anxiety page for more information.
It's difficult to know exactly what someone else is feeling. Try to find out what might be troubling them and encourage them to talk to their GP. Don't try to diagnose the problem yourself.
How you can help them
If you think your older friend or relative is struggling with their mental health, there are some simple things you can do to help.
If they need urgent help
If you think they’re in immediate danger of harming themselves, call 999.
Talk to them about how they feel
A good first step is talking to them and finding out how they’re feeling. If they’re not ready to talk, don’t force them – just let them know you’re there when they need you. If you do talk, try to:
- ask them open questions like 'how have you been feeling lately?' which prompts them to speak in their own words
- listen to what they say and avoid judging them
- reassure them that they're not to blame for how they feel
- don't tell them to 'snap out of it' or 'cheer up' - getting better from a mental health problem isn't as easy as this
- don't try to diagnose them or guess their feelings
- ask how you can help them and give them options rather than telling them what they should do.
Read our Difficult conversations section for more advice on approaching sensitive topics.
Help them take small steps
Feeling better can take time, so it’s important to be patient with your friend or relative. Your role is to encourage them to take positive steps, without putting pressure on them. Consider trying to:
- encourage them to talk to a GP, who can help diagnose the problem and suggest treatment options – you could offer to go with them for support
- encourage them to take care of their physical health by eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly
- offer practical support, such as cooking them a meal or helping out around their house
- learn about their symptoms and triggers, or help them research self-help therapies and treatment options
- let them know there is support out there, either through their GP, a therapist or local support group
- if they do get treatment, encourage them to stick with it, or seek an alternative if it isn’t working for them.
Keep in touch
People with mental health problems can feel like they’re a burden, and people losing touch with them can reinforce that feeling. You could:
- call for a chat, send a nice message or drop in to visit them
- do things you normally would so their problem isn’t the main focus of your relationship
- plan something nice to do, for example, taking them on an outing or trying a new activity together
- encourage them to think of ways they can increase their social connection – see our loneliness page for ideas
- encourage them to keep doing things they enjoy, for example, restarting a hobby or pursuing an interest.
With the right treatment, most people experiencing a mental health problem can either get better or learn how to manage it. But it’s important to let them go at their own pace and make their own decisions as much as possible.
If you're a carer
A mental health problem combined with other medical problems can be complicated. If you’re caring for someone, make sure:
- the person you're caring for is taking all their medication and any other prescribed treatments, and doesn’t neglect their physical health
- try to be patient with them if their behaviour changes – they’re not themselves right now
- encourage them to talk about their feelings and seek help. Make sure any treatment they get for their mental health is part of a care plan that considers all their needs
- that you’re both getting the support you’re entitled to – call our Helpline to arrange a free benefits check, and for advice and information.
Carers UK has a forum for people to talk about caring for someone with mental health problems. You can also find out about the practical, emotional and financial support available to help you in your caring role on our Support for carers pages.
Take care of yourself
Looking after someone else can be taxing and it can be especially difficult if you’ve experienced a mental health problem or feel vulnerable yourself. You can only support your friend or relative if you are feeling well enough, so make sure you're taking care of your own health as well.
There might be times when you need to protect your own mental health and encourage them to have certain conversations with someone else. This could be another friend or relative, a GP or a therapist. It could also be with a confidential helpline, such as Samaritans, or a local support group. Mind has information about support groups in your area. You can also call for advice on caring for your own wellbeing.