I have written before on many occasions about mental health and older people, about the struggles of those who I have known to navigate the no-man’s land between support as an adult and the gaps in provision they meet when they suddenly become ‘old’; about how an understandable emphasis upon child and adolescent support can sometimes make those older adults with life enduring mental health conditions feel that their lack of priority is because of age, contribution and value.
There are many challenges facing older people and in a time of societal uncertainty, cost of living anxiety and a general economic downturn- it is especially hard for those who have mental health challenges to keep going and to navigate a world of uncertainty and confusion.
Monday 10th October is World Mental Health Day, set by the World Federation for Mental Health, and it will as it always does provide people with an opportunity to focus on just how significant mental health is for us all. In the shadows of a global pandemic, it can sometimes feel that an emphasis on physiological health has overtaken the importance of holding in balance our focus on both the psychological, emotional and the physical. That’s certainly what John was reflecting to me recently in some of the communication I have been having with him.
John is in his 80s and he has been a user of mental health services for certainly most of his adult life. Recently he has been experiencing some very dark times and it has been hard for those who love him and who attempt to support him to get him on what he would himself describe as ‘an even keel’ rather than drowning in the torrents of his moods and moments. John said to me that the last few months have been very worrying indeed; what with Ukraine, talk of nuclear weapons, the worry about not having money, the fear of the cold, the fact that so many new faces are coming to support him because staff are leaving his homecare organisation – all of it is creating a whirring headache for John and in his words, ‘’It’s stripping hope off my bones.” But what he worries about and says so much is that he believes he needs to stop talking about how he is feeling; that he needs to pretend to be better and healthier than he is.
Sitting as I do on so many talking groups and committees where mental health comes up ever more frequently, I try to hold on to the stories and exchanges I have with people like John. Because it is easy to become desensitised to the very real fear, the cold fear, which some feel with their mental ill health. It is easy to forget that rather than becoming better or more settled, or attuned to managing episodes of mental ill health, that so many as they get older feel drained and simply exhausted and feel they cannot imagine growing older with such feelings and experiences dominating their living and loving. It is easy to forget that the stigma of mental health is still out there for so many folks maybe especially perhaps for an older generation. It is easy to forget that there are too many people who sit in silent pain and in rooms of lonely, abandoned hope because of a conviction that no one wants to hear their story, feel their pain or understand their distress.
So those of us who are able to listen and hear what is said, and see what is shown, and take on board what is felt, on this and every day we need to make sure that in all the noise of our communities that people like John can still feel their words are worthy of being uttered and that a plea for help will not be ignored. If we do that individually and collectively then perhaps, we will make progress as a community of the fragile.
The Scottish poet and biographer J.B.Pick puts this all beautifully in ‘Old Age Blues.’
‘I don’t know what I used to know.
I don’t say that it isn’t so,
I’ve just forgotten. That’s a blow.
When you know nothing, then you go.
The world keeps changing, things must grow;
You spend life learning, but it’s slow;
Perhaps my status isn’t quo.
I don’t know what I used to know.
Well, I must watch, not let it show,
Greet the morning, say ‘hello’;
When you know nothing, then you go.
I don’t know what I used to know.’