"International Men’s Day [is] designed to give hope to the depressed, faith to the lonely, comfort to the broken-hearted, transcend barriers, eliminate stereotypes and create a more caring humanity."

So said the founder of International Men’s Day. These ambitions might sound unrealistic, but they highlight some of the big challenges facing older men in the UK in 2019 – loneliness and mental health.

Loneliness, isolation and bereavement

Loneliness has become part of the (inter)national conversation. Prime ministers call it a ‘hidden epidemic’. Newspapers are ‘waging war’ on it.

Over 9 million people in the UK – more than the population of London – are always or often lonely. This is people of all ages, often at particular times of life – students, new parents, people retiring.

Older men have particular experiences of loneliness.

For a start, they are more likely to be socially isolated than older women. They see their children, other family members and friends less often.

Bereavement can lead to profound loneliness. Men are more likely to experience loneliness and social isolation than women when bereaved.

Not everyone has someone

Not everyone has a partner or children. Older men without a partner are more likely to be socially isolated and lonely than older women without a partner. They are more likely to go into residential care.

Some older men fear how society views them. A widowed man in his 60s, interviewed for our Ageism Plus blog, said:

"When my wife was alive, some of the neighbours’ kids liked to come in and play with the dogs. Since her death I have to say, “No! Go and get your dad.” I’d hate someone to look saying, “Watch that old man, always got kids round him.”

Older men’s mental health

Loneliness affects our mental health. It is linked with depression, for example.

Indeed, depression is the most common mental health issue among older people, affecting 1 in 5 older men.

Talking therapy is a great way to tackle depression and anxiety for many people. But not enough older people access these services, often being prescribed medication instead.

In the worst cases, mental illness, failing health and loneliness can lead some people to suicide. Suicide rates peak in middle age, then fall but rise again from age 80. This particularly affects older men, given that men are more likely than women to die by suicide at all stages of life.

Calling the doctor?

While we need to watch out for stereotypes, it does seem that men are less likely to reach out for help.

More bereaved women than bereaved men told us they were aware that their GP could offer advice and support with grief, for example.

Anecdotally, services tackling loneliness have more women than men getting involved. Ron, an older man writing for our Ageism Plus blog, said: 

"I’ve noticed that men seem to isolate themselves much more than women and don’t like to reach out for help. I go to a club on a Monday and there are three men there, with 16 women. Like many charities, the organisers say they don’t get much of a response from men. For me it is a wonderful experience."

A bleak (early) winter?

As the November nights draw in, this could paint a bleak picture. But there is some cause for hope.

Last year the government established its first loneliness minister and strategy. The Loneliness Action Group recently found the government has made progress but also called for it to scale up action and renew its commitment and investment.

The NHS long term plan aims to increase the number of people with depression or anxiety getting help through talking therapies. But this service needs to be easier to access for older men to benefit.

By 19 Nov 2020 we won’t have all these issues sorted – certainly we won’t have achieved ‘a more caring humanity’. But if the newly-elected government has the will to act, we may have made progress in improving older men’s lives.

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