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Experiences of ageing and mental illness

Ageing is a very individual experience, although there are a number of common themes in accounts of growing older. For example, old age is often encountered as a time of multiple losses, requiring adaptation to new situations and circumstances. Similarly, individual experiences of mental illness in later life are also unique: nonetheless, there will be some experiences that are common to many people with particular mental health needs.

An understanding of both the range and commonalities of these experiences are essential in order to support older people and their families effectively. The process of ageing involves a combination of biological, psychological and social changes. Many of these changes are quite challenging and can be compounded by the presence of a mental health condition, creating what has been termed ‘double jeopardy’. However, mental health conditions are not a normal and inevitable part of the ageing process. The majority of older people enjoy good mental health and continue to make a valuable contribution to society. Evidence about the factors that affect mental health and well-being has increased in recent years. We now know much more, for example, about the link between social isolation and mental illness. In 2006, the charity Age Concern, in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation, published the first report of the UK enquiry into mental health and well-being in later life. This report draws on a comprehensive review of policy and literature and identifies ways to promote mental health in old age.

The enquiry also invited nearly 900 older people and carers to share their views and experiences of what helps to promote well-being in later life, together with more than 150 professionals and organisations. The review identified five main areas that influence mental health for older people:  discrimination; participation in meaningful activity;  relationships;  physical health;  poverty. Each of these will be discussed in more detail to highlight some of the positive steps that nurses can take to enable older people to maintain good mental health.

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